An explosion during an auto parts plant fire in Eaton Rapids, MI, was “just how a bomb works” and was so violent it threw a worker through the air into a door jamb.
Vehicles in the parking lot caught fire and were damaged by flying debris. A fire “detector did not alert occupants.”
The explosion and a subsequent blast early on the morning of May 2 at the Meridian Magnesium factory in Eaton Rapids occurred because the fire suppression system at the plant added water to molten magnesium. Experts said that is like arming a bomb.
That fire and blast ultimately stopped production of the Ford F-150.
Firefighters called to the factory went to the maintenance room “and looked at the bottom of the scrap conveyor (where) we saw a white glow in the tunnel. We exited the plant at that time,” Eaton Rapids Fire Chief Roger McNutt wrote in his official report.
The report, made public Monday, said the plant sustained an estimated $8 million in damage. It makes highly specialized auto parts used in Ford F-Series trucks and several other vehicles. General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Mercedes and Ford were affected, with F-Series production fully shut down for eight days.
The Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigating the incident.
On May 2, the fire report said, “We went to the sprinkler system … and found water was flowing through the pipes … We saw the damage from the first explosion on the west side of the building. I called for an engine to come to my location to extinguish some fire in the mechanical room where no magnesium was. We started to get the engine ready, I sent a firefighter to hook to hydrant. This is when the second explosion occurred.”
That was at 2:01 a.m.
“After the second explosion, it was reported that there were two employees injured, one by debris that was ejected from the plant and the other employee was injured by the blast of the explosion at the south end of the plant by the scrap tunnel … We did not try to extinguish any fires at the plant because of the molten mag in the area. The roof of the re-melt building caught fire and burned, there were three machines with two crucibles each with ten thousand pounds of molten mag in them.”
An initial cause of the fire has not been determined.
“With the destruction that the second and third explosions caused, it was impossible to find what caused the first explosion,” McNutt said in a Detroit Free Press report. “The second and third explosions were the result of water and molten magnesium. That was observed by myself and employees of the plant after the first alarm was sounded.”
Livonia Fire Capt. Michael Magda, a team leader for the Western Wayne County Hazardous Materials Response Team, said firefighters would usually use Class D extinguishers on magnesium or other metal fires because the powder would smother the oxygen of a fire and eliminate a reaction.
“When you’re adding little drips of water onto a magnesium fire, it’s exploding and exploding, and all that liquid melting metal then gets onto combustible materials like wood, fabric, carpeting, walls. And then that would start on fire,” Magda said.
The worker was thrown through the room because explosion causes a shock wave.
“That’s how a bomb works,” Magda said. “And this is very typical of magnesium. Once the magnesium is ignited, it explodes when water added to it. It’s going to be a very dynamic incident. A very dangerous incident for firefighters and the surrounding community. They were lucky there were no fatalities.”
Rob Mickey was one of many laborers, ironworkers, riggers and operators called into work by Walbridge construction immediately following the fires.
“There were two 12-hour shifts to begin,” Mickey said. “The wind that first Friday made some difficulties getting to some critical dies. We knew there was an urgency to retrieve the dies from the building so parts could be made elsewhere, but we still needed to proceed with safety in mind and we were able to balance those two.”
The devastation was all-consuming as Ford and other automakers worked with Meridian Magnesium Products of America to get tools off site to try and produce crucial car parts elsewhere.
“The power of the blast blew a large hole in the roof and back wall of the building, but also triggered every safety hatch on the roof of the building, and those had to be closed before some weather hit on Sunday and Monday,” Mickey said. “It was a coordinated team effort.”
Eaton Rapids Fire Chief McNutt said his team simply vacated the plant immediately.
“We didn’t fight any fire up there. Everything happened too quick,” he said. “The only thing we did is set the ladder truck up and look at the top of the building. If there’s any mag fires, we don’t fight them. We let people at the shop do it. But this was beyond their control. They simply evacuated.”