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Engineers to return to work at Excel on Wednesday

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Hesston Mayor David Kauffman talks about the town's recovery process. (Video by Beccy Tanner)
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Hesston Mayor David Kauffman talks about the town's recovery process. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

Employees at Excel Industries gathered for meetings on Tuesday afternoon. For many, it was the first time they had seen one another since a mass shooting five days before.

“It was really emotional,” said Paul Dierks, a second-shift production employee at Excel. “A lot of tears, a lot of hugs.”

It was really emotional. A lot of tears, a lot of hugs.

Paul Dierks, a second-shift production employee at Excel

Dierks said he’s even more impressed with Excel than he was prior to the shooting.

“I’m going end up being a lifer,” he said about working at the company. “Of all the companies I’ve ever worked for, this is the first one that treats everybody in that plant as family, other than just workers, and they showed it today.”

Dierks and other Excel employees at the meetings said Bob and Paul Mullet, whose family owns Excel, led the presentation. No one from Excel management would comment publicly about the meetings.

Employees said they were told that engineers would return to work on Wednesday, but while the rest of the plant remains closed, employees will continue to receive pay and benefits as usual.

Employees also said that Paul and Bob Mullet announced an Excel employee picnic set for 2 p.m. Sunday at King Park in Hesston.

From the Excel employee meetings: Engineers will return to work on Wednesday; full reopening date still not set; employees will receive pay and benefits while the plant remains closed.

Excel held three employee meetings Tuesday at the Meridian Center in Newton: one for first-shift workers, one for office staff members and one for second-shift employees.

Employees from the first-shift and second-shift meetings said both started with a prayer dedicated to victims of the shooting. Employees from each meeting echoed one another about meeting format and content.

Crystal Solis, who has worked at Excel for almost 10 years, was at the first-shift meeting Tuesday.

She said the Mullets explained they want to “meet in the middle” for a reopening date, getting the plant operational again but also making sure employees are prepared to return to work.

Solis said it sounded as if the plant would stay closed this week but that the Mullets instructed employees to regularly call an employee hotline number to receive updates about the plant.

The hotline has a recorded message for employees to find out information about Excel. The hotline instructed employees to attend Tuesday’s meeting. Solis said Excel uses the hotline as its main form of communication with workers.

Jacob Schrag said he was told at the second-shift meeting that damage done to the Excel plant “was less than anticipated.”

“A good majority of the new machinery in there comes from Germany, and they actually have to bring specialists over to install and set up a lot of that,” he said. “Had any of that been damaged, it could really slow the reopening process significantly.”

Solis said the Mullets did not talk about security changes when Excel reopens and that the two speakers opened the first meeting for questions but that no one asked follow-up questions.

Brian Johnson, a first-shift welder at Excel, echoed much of Solis’ recap of the meeting.

I feel sorry for them trying to go through all this, but there’s also employees that want to know when we’re getting back to work.

Brian Johnson, a first-shift welder at Excel

“We’re still anxious,” Johnson said. “We want to know what’s going on, but they said, ‘We’re telling you as much as we know.’ I feel sorry for them trying to go through all this, but there’s also employees that want to know when we’re getting back to work.”

He said he hopes Excel develops a security plan before reopening.

“They said, ‘We’re not going to rush anybody, we’re going to do it when everybody’s comfortable,’ ” Johnson said about the reopening date.

On the way into Tuesday’s second-shift employee meeting, John Price, a welder, said, “I have a lot of questions to get answered.”

Price said he was within 2 to 3 feet of bullets as they ricocheted and caused concrete chunks to pop out of the floor.

He said another Excel worker pushed Price out the way to save Price from getting shot.

“I want to know if he got hit, if he’s OK,” he said.

He said he heard someone yell “fire” but that it didn’t scare him right away.

“Heck, I catch on fire all the time – I’ve caught on fire personally,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for fires to break out in a weld shop.”

He said a building fire was not a large threat because he and other workers can quickly put it out.

“I thought, ‘Where’s the fire?’ ” he said. “Because I’m hearing these popping sounds, and the only thing that’s going through my head is that it’s a gas line.”

Price said he saw someone making a smoke fog with a CO2 dispenser. He said he later realized the worker used the CO2 to block the shooter’s view of other employees.

“Pretty smart guy, whoever did that,” Price said.

He said he’s proud to work for Excel and isn’t afraid to go back.

They’re not going to let evil keep us down.

John Price, welder at Excel

“They’re not going to let evil keep us down,” Price said about Excel and his co-workers.

Contributing: Matt Riedl of The Eagle

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

Hesston Mayor David Kauffman talks about the town's recovery process. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

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