Union officials remember Rouge explosion 10 years later

By J. PATRICK PEPPER
Times-Herald Newspapers

 

DEARBORN — Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic explosion that killed six people and injured two dozen more at Ford’s Rouge Plant.

 

Donald Harper, a 58-year-old pipefitter, died on the spot. Cody Boatwright, a 51-year-old welder, died four days later. Warren Blow, a 51-year-old power service operator, died 11 days later. Ken Anderson, a 44-year-old pipefitter; John Arseneau, a 45-year-old pipefitter; and Ron Maritz, a 46-year-old supervisor; died two to three weeks after the accident.

 

Newly named Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. called it the “worst day of his life.”
But it was a day that began like so many others at the sprawling south end complex. The first shift punched in at 8 a.m. and most workers went to their stations to begin performing their daily duties.

 

Some, though, had the unenviable task of performing annual maintenance on the plant’s boilers. After prepping Boiler No. 6 for most of the first half of the day, the gas was finally shut off at noon.
Just 58 minutes later, with everything in place, the team assigned to Boiler No. 6 went to take the final step before they could begin the actual upkeep: opening the valves to purge any remaining gas.

 

A problem though, perhaps with the procedure or perhaps because there was a miscommunication – investigators accounts differ – led to a buildup of gas in the boiler’s furnace.

 

And when the valves were turned, the day that had begun like so many others at the 80-year-old factory ended in infamy, a fiery explosion that claimed lives, permanently altered others and caused the nation to scrutinize factory safety more closely than at any time since Upton Sinclair’s account of the meatpacking industry in “The Jungle.”

 

“Even though it’s been 10 years, it seemed like it was just yesterday,” UAW Local 600 President Jerry Sullivan said. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think about them and the families they left behind.”

 

Following the explosion, Ford agreed to pay survivors a combined $30 million in addition to trusts and salaries. The tragedy also prompted the auto giant to make a $7 million settlement with the Michigan Office of Safety and Occupational Health for fines, safety upgrades at the plant and improving procedures.

 

In remembrance of their fallen co-workers, many UAW members planned to visit the Powerhouse Memorial on Saturday at the Ernest Lofton Fitness Center, 3001 Miller, and say a prayer.