James Anderson Jr. backed his 15 ton truck up to a slag pond filled with plant wastes and stopped just short of the edge. A helper signaled him forward, but the truck lurched back and plunged into the murky water, carrying Anderson to his death on March 13, 1978.

That was just the beginning.

A month later a foreman was scalded to death in the tin mill. Then a man was yanked onto a giant spool of wire as it spun around and round in the steel plant.

There was death by heat stroke, by electrocution, and twice by carbon monoxide poisoning. One man plunged to his death when a piece of sheet metal gave way, and another fell through an open manhole. A train struck a truck and killed yet another man.

Then last week, a crane atop an 80 foot tower crashed to the ground like a felled tree, crushing the operator and a helper below.

"It has been an extraordinary period, unprecedented." said Harvey Epstein, commissioner of Maryland's Division of Labor and Industry. "We've searched for a reason, tried to find a common thread through the deaths. But we have never found an answer."

Indeed, there is no pattern apparent in the 12 deaths at the Bethlehem Steel plant and shipyards, where 25,000 men and women work. The reddish brown forest of pipes and towers and gargantuan blasp furnaces covers 3,000 acres on Sparrows Point, jutting into the Chesapeake Bay southeast of Baltimore.

Between 1975 and 1978, four workers were killed at the plant and shipyards run by Maryland's largest private employer.

That death rate, which workers had learned to expect as the risk one must take, has increased sixfold in the last 18 months.

After eight of the most recent deaths, federal or state officials investigating the accidents cited the company for safety or health violations. Bethlehem has contested most of the citations. It has paid fines for some, but refuses to admit any wrongdoing, the case files show.

"Each one, each time, it's always something different." said the chief investigator for Maryland's occupational Safety and Health unit. "But I don't like to say it's bad luck. I'm convinced every accident can be prevented."

In June 1977, the safety unit cited Bethlehem for failure to have protective screens around its wire drawing machines.

But a month later, at a private meeting between representatives of the company and the state, the state withdrew its objections, agreeing it would be enough for Bethlehem to install "emergency stop" devices on the machines.

Safety officials thought that would prevent the hazard they were concerned about -- a broken wire whipping out and hitting an employe.

But on June 16, 1978, as 29-year-old Robert Hall was applying resin to the wire being coiled onto the machine's spool, he was jerked head first onto the spool and killed by the wire winding over him.

Safety officials have since acknowledged that a protective screen could have saved his life.

That a man could be pulled into a machine "should have been apparent," Commissioner Epstein said recently, looking back on his safety unit's actions. "But everybody missed it."

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), called in by the steelworkers' union, looked into the incident and lambasted the state. Now, Epstein acknowledges that the state agency failed to do its job.

"I took the blame on that," he says.

Since Hall's death, Bethlehem has placed screens around every one of its wire drawing machines, a company spokesman said. And it has paid a fine of $27,000 -- the biggest ever levied by the state -- for failure to have screens up.

But Pete Hasselberger, safety chairman of one of the plant's steelworkers' unions, called the fine ridiculous.

"Twenty-seven thousand for a man's life?" Hasselberger said this week. "Are you kidding? They could take that out of petty cash."

Epstein said the fine was for failure to meet safety standards and was not intended to pay for a human life.

In the most recent fatal accident, at the company shipyards, a giant green crane and its towering platform crashed eight stories to the ground as it and three other cranes worked to lift a 300 ton deck house onto a ship.The crane's operator and a helper on the ground were crushed to death.

Federal officials, in announcing their preliminary findings last week, said the crane apparently fell because it was overloaded and not because of operator or sturctural failure.

The tentative report blamed the accident on improper planning and inadequate instruction of the workers.

But in the shipyards and steel plant, where cranes are as high as skyscrapers and buildings are as long as football fields, the accidents are not seen in terms of official citations or monetary penalties or technical violations.

"If you could read the signs on the way down North Point Road coming to the plant, they say 'Safety First,'" said the union's Hasselberger. "Well, they should say 'Production First, Safety Second.'"

Bethlehem officials, in a crisp, corporate response read by a spokesman, said "Every individual employe and every member of supervision is responsible for safety, and in many cases the operations have made safety improvements at the expense of either maintained or increased production."

The spokesman pointed to various "emissions controls "put on the plant's coke ovens to clean the air and protect employes. He said they have slowed the process of turning coal into coke and require more workers.

The company "is greatly concerned about each and every accident," and "every effort is being made to prevent a recurrence," he added.

The company gets some public support from a union official, Joseph Kotelchuck, president of the largest steelworkers' local at Bethlehem.

"Culprits. Everyone is always looking for culprits." Kotelchuck complained, when asked about the string of fatal accidents. "I'm satisfied with the way the state has looked into these accidents. Plus, Bethlehem has bent over backwards -- unfortunately after someone is killed -- but they've bent over backwards to get things done."

The record, however, shows that Kotelchuck is not always so satisfied.

In the case of Earl Barley, the second man killed by carbon-monoxide poisoning in the space of three months, Kotelchuck complained to federal officials that the state had failed to cite Bethlehem for any violations. He asked for further investigation.

The giant steelmaker recently paid $24,000 in penalties for "serious and willful" violations it was cited for after an earlier carbon-monoxide death, that of Robert Carter.

Carter had gone to the plant infirmary, complaining he had been gassed, according to safety unit official Oneil Banks. Blood tests showed he had received a dose "consistent with fatal poisoning." But a lab technician, apparently believing "that couldn't be or he'd be dead." failed to notify Carter of the results, Banks said.

A week later, Carter was dead.

"If Carter had been told, 'Last week you got enough gas to kill you; it's sheer luck you didn't die,' maybe he would have been more careful," Banks said.

Bethlehem paid the fine to close the case, but it never admitted to having violated any state standards.

Despite the dozen deaths in the past 18 months, the men in the mills seem to accept the risks as part of the job.

"You don't have fear, and quit or run," said 55-year-old millwright Joseph Wooden, who tried last January to pound life back into the chest of Barley, the second carbon monoxide victim.

"I was in the service in World War II," said Wooden. "The same situations came along. A friend gets killed. If something happens . . . the job goes on. You gotta accept it.

"Course, if I thought I was gonna get bumped off tomorrow, I would leave the place. But I don't feel or think that way." he said.

And so the work goes on, said the safety conscious Hasselberger. "You always got somebody who'll jump right in and do the job after a guy's been killed."