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Portrait of Ken Tran and of Jonathan Steinke
Emergency vehicles at Northrup Grumman

Dying to Make Hypersonic Missiles in Utah

Inkstick Exclusive: How two workers perished on the job at America’s third-largest defense contractor. “My son died a senseless death” at Northrop Grumman.

Words: Taylor Barnes
Pictures: Courtesy of the family of Ken Tran, of Julie Steinke, and of Lincoln Graves - KUTV

Julie Steinke didn’t see her son, Jonathan, 24, the morning he left their home to go die on the job at America’s third-largest defense contractor. Jonathan worked taxing 12-hour shifts starting at 6 a.m. at a Northrop Grumman plant in Magna, Utah, earning about $24 an hour. He had used the money to buy his mother a new roof; he’d been hoping to still buy her a deck. 

Witnesses would later tell investigators from the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division (UOSH) that the area of building 2440 where his body was found at the end of his shift had a history of gas leaks. Employees even knew about the leaks on the day of the deaths: According to the UOSH report obtained by Inkstick through a public records request, Steinke and a coworker, Ken Tran, who would also perish there, had been in the same area on the morning of their deaths, accompanying a maintenance crew to examine pressure switches to see if that was what was causing the leak of argon. The gas, used for welding, is heavier than air and displaces oxygen. 

Before they died, Jonathan and Ken each walked down four flights of stairs alongside an autoclave, a vessel used to subject materials to high pressure and heat. A former coworker said it looks like a giant, upright pipe. They reached an underground area that workers called the “pit,” from which they could look up and see the bottom of the autoclave and perform work on the electrical connections and steel tubes on it. There was a barricade at the stairway entrance and a sign that read: “Confined space entry can be fatal. Entry by permit only,” according to UOSH. The sign notwithstanding, UOSH later fined Northrop Grumman for having reclassified the area as a non-permit space; the permit designation would have required the company to perform a series of controls and safety measures to protect employees, such as atmospheric testing and providing workers breathing equipment. (A spokesman for the Utah Labor Commission, Eric Olsen, said that Northrop Grumman is appealing the UOSH citations. The company did not respond to phone calls and emails with detailed questions from Inkstick, including why it is appealing. The adjudication process is ongoing, and there has been no final finding of negligence.) 

Exclusive: Read UOSH’s citations here and report here.

Two coworkers later told police they had expected to see Jonathan and Ken in the locker room or showers during shift change; when they didn’t show up, they went searching for them. They swept building 2440 twice and couldn’t find their coworkers; that’s when one noticed that the machinery Jonathan and Ken operated appeared to be in the middle of a leak safety check. He stepped down into the pit and immediately noticed the smell of argon, he told police. He ran out to call for help while the second coworker then tried to descend into the pit to rescue Jonathan and Ken; that employee started to get dizzy within seconds, turned around and crawled up the final steps gasping for breath, according to the police report; his colleague told UOSH that he had to pull him to safety. On the staircase next to Jonathan and Ken’s slumped bodies, witnesses told UOSH they saw a pair of sonic ears, a device a former employee described to Inkstick as headphones and a ray gun-like instrument used to listen for the hissing sound of leaks. 

Julie was in bed at 8:30 p.m. and feeling like Jonathan should have been home already when her other son heard a knock on the door from police. She was numb in the hours after learning of her youngest child’s death, she told Inkstick. A supervisor attempted to comfort her, she said, telling her that Jonathan and Ken “were making the hypersonic missiles that were to defend our country” and that “they were heroes on the other side” of this life.

“My thought was, well, why didn’t you protect him?”

Former Employee: Same Building Evacuated for Gas Leak in 2022

Jonathan and Ken died on Jan. 30, 2023, but Inkstick Media is reporting their names and cause of death for the first time.

The company never publicly revealed their identities or cause of death, contributing to an air of secrecy that Julie said bothered her. MK Fletcher, safety and health specialist at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, told Inkstick that every workplace fatality is individual and it is best to ask families their wishes, and that families tend to want their loved one remembered as a person with a name. She added that sharing workers’ names after they have died on the job helps to humanize the loss and keep the worker’s death from “fading away into the background.”

In a brief statement broadcast on local television in Salt Lake City, an unnamed Northrop Grumman spokesperson was quoted saying that the company was not releasing details of the deaths, “out of respect for the privacy of the employees and the families.” A similar statement about privacy was made in a GoFundMe, which requested that users donate to the families of the deceased but named neither the workers nor the relatives who would receive the funds. One local reporter who arrived at the gates of the plant and photographed emergency vehicles thronging the area tried fruitlessly over the following days to get more information. He penned a short article three days later: “Authorities provide no answers in deaths of 2 West Valley Northrop Grumman employees.” 

Firetruck driving by Northrup Grumman sign
Courtesy of Lincoln Graves – KUTV

Inkstick pieced together the story through public records requests, including for the UOSH report that took nearly six months to be released, and by speaking with families, a coworker and an expert on workplace safety. Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Inkstick made by phone and e-mail regarding the workplace hazards and alarming circumstances surrounding the men’s deaths described in the reports and by the families and coworkers. 

Julie and Jonathan’s father, Robert Steinke, said they never told the company that Jonathan’s name needed to be kept secret. Julie told Inkstick the secrecy bothered her, as though it implied that her son had done something wrong. 

“I don’t want people to not talk about him, like he’s a shameful secret, because he’s not,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I’m angry at Northrop, because they do treat it like it’s a secret. And it is a dirty secret — because if they’d just been responsible, nobody would be dead.”

The widow of Ken Tran spoke briefly with Inkstick by phone and text message, saying the loss had devastated her family. 

The men’s deaths blotted a moment when their employer’s local political clout and economic power were on the rise. 

Northrop Grumman is the largest defense contractor in Utah, performing more than $2 billion in weapons work there in 2021, according to the Pentagon’s Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation. Its executives routinely appear in public relations photos alongside state political leaders and congressional representatives. In 2020, the company and, by extension, Utah, received a major financial boost when the federal government awarded it a $13 billion contract to restock hundreds of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in the United States nuclear weapons arsenal. Key to getting that contract was the company’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, one of just two solid-fuel rocket engine makers in the US. The acquisition drew scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, since it gave Northrop Grumman such a dominant position in the rocket market – indeed, its only would-be competitor for the ICBM contract, Boeing, dropped out of the bidding, calling it unfair. But the government allowed the acquisition to go through; Northrop Grumman ended up being the only company to bid on the lucrative ICBM contract, and won it. The company is manufacturing the weapons in Utah.

That acquisition changed the management in building 2440.

A former maintenance employee who worked in the building for 19 years told Inkstick he had been evacuated from building 2440 just a few months before Jonathan and Ken’s death after what appeared to be a valve failure; Julie told Inkstick that Jonathan had also told her about the evacuation. The employee, who asked Inkstick not to use his name to avoid jeopardizing future employment opportunities, was fired a few weeks before Jonathan and Ken’s deaths in what he said was retaliation for raising safety concerns on the job. (Spokespeople for Northrop Grumman did not respond to any questions from Inkstick, including why the employee was fired.)

Robert Steinke, Jonathan’s father, got news of his son’s death late at night at his home in Virginia; also a defense contractor, he was, by extraordinary coincidence, a safety specialist trained on confined space entry in environments like submarines and aircraft carriers. 

“It’s both a good thing and, in my case, I think it’s a terrible thing,” he told Inkstick, “because I have 15 years of training and knowledge of how he died.”

The next morning, he drove 30 hours nonstop to Magna, and began conducting his own parallel personal inquiry alongside official investigators. Coworkers quietly approached Robert and his friends at Jonathan’s viewing and funeral, eager to tell him what had gone wrong.

The company was fined $172,350 by UOSH, but the Salt Lake County District Attorney, Sim Gill, has not at this time determined whether to pursue criminal charges in the deaths. Gill told Inkstick in an emailed statement that his office had discussed the case with UOSH but had not received an official referral from them.

UOSH Report: Safety Violation was “Willful”

Terry Krug, a former OSHA compliance officer and an expert on confined space entry who has written a book on the topic, reviewed the UOSH reports at Inkstick’s request. He said they painted a picture of a confined space program that was “severely deficient,” with inconsistent practices and unclear procedures regarding entry into the dangerous space. 

For example, one worker told UOSH investigators that employees received confined space training annually on the computer; the company did not respond to questions from Inkstick about whether they also received hands-on training, such as simulated rescues and training on how to use MSA gas meters, which require special calibration in order to be accurate. One employee told investigators that they used gas meters in the space; another said that gas meters were “not always used.” Another said that personal protective equipment was supposed to include supplied air. 

Krug noted that UOSH used its most serious classification — “willful-serious” — to describe Northrop Grumman’s failure to classify entering the “pit” as Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health, or an IDLH.

“It doesn’t seem to me like that contractor knew what they were doing as far as proper controls, as far as testing, as far as training the people that would be going in there, and monitoring them to see that they’re following their confined space program,” Krug said. “And I don’t even know if they had a confined space program.”

UOSH used its most serious classification — “willful-serious” — to describe Northrop Grumman’s failure to classify entering the “pit” as Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health, or an IDLH.

Robert’s first encounter with the danger of confined spaces came when he was a few months into his new career in shipbuilding, nine stories down on an aircraft carrier. He saw a coworker welding while jet fuel pooled below his workspace. Robert imagined the fireball those sparks would create leaping up through the narrow staircases he’d just come down and how he wouldn’t be able to outrun it. “I could have been a crispy critter,” he told Inkstick. That was the moment he decided he could get killed if he didn’t become an expert in workplace safety, he said. He went through training to become what OSHA calls a Competent Person, an employee capable of evaluating workplace hazards and eliminating them. 

Those safety checks can become a bottleneck for supervisors eager to move ahead with their work, Robert said, recalling a story of when he evacuated a whole submarine because he discovered that an incorrect bottle was being used to bump test a gas meter. He waited hours to receive the correct bottle, then scrambled into the vessel to use the meter and check that workers could safely breathe in its confines. “It becomes expensive” to idle a workforce for procedures like that, he told Inkstick. “It’s a pain in the ass.”

Armed with his training and years of work experience, Robert had no inclination to believe his son died a hero’s death.

“My son died a senseless death” he told Inkstick, a “death that should not have occurred.”

Hypersonic Missiles for What?

If Julie had asked the supervisor who called her son a hero how the hypersonic missiles Jonathan died working on defended the country, he may have struggled to give her details. 

That’s because the US military has no official mission for these weapons. Hypersonics are missiles that travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound, something traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) loaded with nuclear warheads have long done. But differently from ICBMs, which travel on predictable arcs across the globe, hypersonics can maneuver en route to their destinations. According to a February 2023 report from the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Defense hasn’t decided yet whether it will acquire such weapons and instead is just developing prototypes. In other words, Jonathan and Ken died making a weapon that may be in the arsenal of tomorrow — or may end up in the dustbin of history and the discarded weapons of the arms races of yesteryear. Northrop Grumman did not respond to any questions from Inkstick, including any additional details about the types of hypersonic missiles the men were building components for.  

Jonathan wasn’t allowed to tell his mom much about his weapons industry work, since he held a security clearance. Julie and Robert didn’t even know his job title. She said their time to chat was usually in the evenings, after they’d each gotten home and could relax. She told Inkstick that one day, without giving specifics, he began to speak ominously about his workplace, telling her about broken equipment and pressure on the job.

Julie, through tears, told Inkstick how that conversation ended.

“I remember looking at him and saying, ‘don’t you die.’ And he just looked at me and didn’t say anything.”

Taylor Barnes

Field Reporter

Taylor Barnes in Inkstick Media's field reporter for military affairs and the defense industry. She is a grantee with the Ploughshares Fund and is based in Atlanta. Follow her work at @tkbarnes. Tips?


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