Monday 1st February 1999
An explosion at Ford’s Rouge Complex in Dearborn killed six employees and injured 24. The explosion occurred shortly after 1 p.m. at the Number Three boiler at the power house which generates electricity for the 1,200-acre industrial complex, located about 7 miles outside of Detroit. Witnesses said flames shot up hundreds of feet into the air, and nearby streets were littered with bricks, cinder blocks and debris. One office worker in a building in the giant complex reported that the blast felt like an earthquake, shaking the multistoried building and blowing out windows in cars parked across the street.
About 100 workers were in the power station at the time. One worker, Brian Papke, told reporters, “I thought we were dead because of the way the ceiling and debris fell on us. It was black with smoke and hard to see. I helped one of my coworkers out. He came up to me with his skin burned off and said he was blind.” Jerry Sullivan, the president of UAW Local 600, who went to the scene, said, “I haven’t seen anything like that since my days in Vietnam.”
With the power out Ford management sent the first shift home, and cancelled production at the facility for the afternoon. At the time about 4,000 workers were in the complex, which produces Ford’s Mustang model. The Dearborn police cordoned off the area around the plant, concerned that there could be a second explosion.
Soon after the blast a call went out for every available ambulance in the area to rush to the scene, followed by a call for medical helicopters. At one point 75 emergency crews were present. Ambulances lined the streets around the burning building, as heavy gray smoke billowed from the windows. It was well into the evening before the fire was fully extinguished.
The coal-fired station generates enough power to serve a city the size of Boston, according to Ford spokesmen. Workers at the facility, opened shortly after operations at the Rouge complex began in 1918, have long complained about antiquated equipment and dangerous conditions.