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Firefighters cover the cab of excavator after part of the concrete debris fell killing the equipment operator Friday, Dec. 25, 2009, outside Hovey Hall in Normal. (The Pantagraph/CARLOS T. MIRANDA)

NORMAL — An excavator operator with 30 years experience was killed Friday afternoon in a construction accident at Hovey Hall on the Illinois State University campus.

The operator died when a portion of a four-story stone column fell on the excavator he was using. McLean County Coroner Beth Kimmerling said Friday night the victim was a Bloomington resident and officials were notifying next of kin.

An autopsy will be held at a later date, she said.

ISU Spokesman Jay Groves said officials from Occupational Safety and Health Administration were at the site Friday night investigating the accident. Hovey Hall is the university’s administration building at School and North streets.

The operator was employed by Stark Excavating Inc., Bloomington. A crew of about six workers from Stark was called to the scene Friday to clean up the column. ISU and Normal Police were notified at 10:15 a.m. Friday about the collapse of the stone façade on one of the eight columns at the building.

By about 2:30 p.m., workers were attempting to remove a portion of the stone column that was leaning against the building. It appeared the lines holding the top of the stone column broke, sending part of the column onto the excavator, smashing the cab where the operator was working.

“We had done some testing on the other columns and felt confident in our plan,” said Mike Grady, ISU Director of Grounds, who was on the scene at the time of the mishap. “We were taking precautions, but as we were removing it away from the building, the column snapped and fell.”

Earlier in the day, the other half of the column had collapsed onto School Street near the area of the Alamo II. A steel beam at the center of the column appeared intact.

The campus closed Wednesday for the holidays and no one appeared to be near the building when the column originally fell, Groves said.

The cause for the collapse also is under investigation. Meanwhile, straps have been wrapped around the remaining seven columns in front of Hovey as a precaution, Groves said.

Normal fire responded to the scene and called for their technical rescue team —which specializes in building collapses. But Assistant Fire Chief Doug Barnett said shortly after Normal firefighters arrived, the scene was turned over to Kimmerling.

Hovey was built in 1967 and it includes the office for ISU President Al Bowman, who watched firefighters work at the scene Friday.

“This is an unspeakable tragedy,” Bowman said. “We are immensely disappointed with the news of this accident. No matter when something like this occurs, it’s a huge disappointment, but to have it happen on Christmas Day is just beyond words.”

Bowman met with Stark officials and offered his sympathy and support.

“The workers are having a tough time with this as you can imagine,” Bowman said. “The crane operator was among the first people hired 30 years ago and he was loved by all.”

Normal Mayor Chris Koos also arrived to express condolences to Stark officials.

“This is just an awful tragedy and our heart goes out to his family, friends and co-workers,” he said.

Barnett said Normal fire would remain on the scene to assist with removal of the debris from the accident.