In Michigan history: Deadly Lake Huron tunnel explosion

James Graham, Lou Mleczko and James Tittsworth
The Detroit News

This Dec. 12, 1971 report was the The Detroit News’ first published account of one of the worst industrial accidents Michigan history.

The blast created a shock wave with a speed of 4,000 miles an hour and a force of 15,000 pounds per square inch.

Port Huron -- Seventeen workers died and 21 survived a roaring natural gas explosion which ripped through the Detroit Water Board intake tunnel, 230 feet below the shoreline of Lake Huron Saturday afternoon.

Rescue workers said the blast “must have been like something that would happen in a gun barrel.” The force was so great that bodies of the dead were limbless and some were decapitated.

The 38 workmen were in the below-ground tunnel, pouring its concrete liner, about three-quarters of a mile from the headshaft, on Metcalf Street in Port Huron. This would place the explosion point almost beneath the Lake Huron shoreline.

The tunnel, 18 feet wide, starts from a cavern below a wheat field on the shore of Lake Huron five miles north of here.

It pitches upward through the 100-foot thick shale under the lake to meet with a giant water intake that will feed into the tunnel, 50 feet under the surface and five miles out.

The tunnel itself was completed three months ago, according to the superintendent of the construction company, John Malek, of Union Lake.

The system, planned or under construction since 1962, is to supply the Detroit area’s water needs into the next century.

Port Huron Hospital, located about 10 miles from the scene of the accident, had at least 100 persons standing by to aid the injured.

One of the survivors of the explosion, Richard Green, 27, of Croswell, Mich., has a broken leg and multiple lacerations about the face and arms and the rest of his body. Green was working a vibrator -- a machine that finishes concrete.

“There hasn’t been any gas in the tunnel for some months now and then it wasn’t anything to worry about,” he said.

Green was groggy and his speech was slurred as he spoke from his bed in Port Huron Hospital.

“I don’t remember much about the explosion. I thought an airline broke, but it pushed hell out of me. It seemed like a bomb,” Green said.

“I was on top of the form and the next thing I knew I was flying through the air.”

Green said that the explosion and concussion knocked him out and he didn’t remember anything until he was in the ambulance. “When I woke up I knew I was hurt, but I also knew I was alive.”

Mr. and Mrs. Max Green of Carsonville, Mich., said that their son had been working in the tunnel since April.

“I told him that he’d never catch me in that tunnel and that I wanted him out of there,” Green’s father said.

Of the first three men admitted to the hospital, one suffered from a head injury and was transferred to St . Joseph Mercy Hospital, Mt. Clemens. All names were withheld pending notification of families.

Hundreds of police from at least five agencies were assisting the sheriff’s officers in rescue work and traffic control.

Hundreds of sightseers jammed the roads in both directions from the tunnel entrance at Metcalf Road.

Police attempted to keep the roads cleared but were frustrated in their efforts.

Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs left a testimonial banquet in the mansion honoring James A. Wineman to hurry to the disaster scene.

Before leaving, the mayor instructed the police department to send its helicopter to the scene to provide any assistance possible.

Gribbs stopped first at Port Huron Hospital to check on the condition of the injured men and then went on the disaster area.

The tunnel project has been plagued by controversy, mishaps and changes of plan.

Construction began in the spring of 1968. When completed, the tunnel, which extends five miles out from the shore and under the Lake Huron bottom, will take in water for the vast network which serves southeastern Michigan, including Detroit.

Witnesses said the blast occurred at 3:11 p.m. Its severity sent debris sailing into the air at both its ends -- on the Port Huron mainland and from the cofferdam at the intake five miles off shore.

Corrugated metal air ducts, which carried air to workmen along the tunnel, were ripped to shreds, some of the pipes rolled into twisted balls of metal with knife-like edges.

One 15-ton piece of machinery was thrown backward 40 feet.

Rescue workers plunged into the tunnel from the main headshaft and worked in darkness with flashlights, scrambling over jagged chunks of torn metal, trying to get out the injured.

The rescue work went on until 7:45 p.m., when the rescuers were pulled out of the tunnel because of a high content of methane (natural) gas in the air.

Explosimeters were registering a methane gas content of 80 percent, said John Atkinson, an employee of Greenfield & Associates, Livonia contractors, who are doing the concrete work in the tunnel.

Atkinson is an afternoon shift worker who went to the scene to help with the rescue work.

“We were pulled out,” Atkinson said, “because the methane gas had built to 80 percent in the tunnel and at 89 percent it will kill.”

He said exhaust fans were being used to suck air out of the tunnel to get the gas level down so the men could go back.

Sheriff Noman D. Meharg, of St. Clair County, said that when the rescue workers were withdrawn, bodies of 17 dead were still in the tunnel.

Meharg said 2 men got out, seven of them on stretchers.

Of the 21, he said, 12 were near the elevator shaft when the blast occurred and they walked out. The 12 carried two others injured so seriously that they couldn’t walk.

Later, fireman and ambulance attendants brought out the remaining seven on stretchers. All seven were further inside the tunnel when the blast occurred.

Several persons confirmed the presence of natural gas in the tunnel and Fire Chief Lincoln Harrington, of Burtchville Volunteer Fire Department, said “I believe it was a gas explosion set off by an acetylene torch.”  Editor’s note: The cause was later determined to be a spark caused by a heavy drill bit striking concrete.

One of the first into the tunnel, Harrington said he found the torch and acetylene gas was still bubbling from it through water on the floor of the tunnel. “I turned off its tank,” he said.

Joe Summers, of Gary Ind., a tunnel worker, said drillers were drilling a hole in the tunnel near the intake in Lake Huron and “this drilling let the gas into the tunnel.”

Alexander C. Vargo Jr., an ambulance driver, collapsed in the tunnel for lack of oxygen, witnesses said, and he was treated and released from Port Huron Hospital.

All of the injured were taken to Port Huron Hospital and witnesses said men on stretchers brought out of the headshaft were badly cut, their faces torn. Some had broken arms and legs. Doctors said at least two of the injured had fractured backs.

Medical attendants said all of the injured were in “very poor condition,” although none were listed as critical.

Rescue workers were appalled by what they saw when they reached victims in the tunnel. The scene was likened to an H bomb explosion, and one rescuer said it looked “worse than a battlefield.”

Arms, legs and parts of bodies were strewn about. The injured were moaning, some of them praying for help. Most of the injured were semiconscious and few could talk, according to doctors who attended them in the tunnel.

The front page of The Detroit News on Dec. 12, 1971 had the first published reports about the accident.

Two Port Huron doctors, Dr. Elmore D. Shoudy and Dr. Gordon R. Rade, entered the tunnel about 5:30 p.m.  to give medical help to the injured.

The two doctors confirmed that there were 17 dead.

Dr. Shoudy said twisted metal and machinery blocked the paths of rescuers. “At one point, he said, “we had to walk along a conduit pipe that was only about a foot wide.

“The explosion in that tunnel must have been like something that would happen in a gun barrel.”

The two doctors said they walked as far as a mile up the tunnel (it pitches upward from its mainland beginning, 230 feet below ground, to its ending five miles out in the lake).

Both doctors complained that they suffered nausea because of gas fumes -- and the nausea became worse as they went further along the tunnel.

Evidently, there was little structural damage to the tunnel. The explosion traveled the length of it -- almost six miles -- and vented itself at both ends.

Part of the tunnel ceiling caved in and some big rocks fell in, but other than that the tunnel itself was unharmed and there was no major flooding, workers said.

Greenfield & Associates of Livonia had the contract to line the 18-foot tube and the workmen were moving from the basin area, at the Lake Huron end of the tube, to the headshaft on Metcalf Street. They had less than a mile concrete to finish.

Like H-bomb blast, says tunnel rescuer

Port Huron -- “I’ve seen enough. I’ve seen too much.”

The words were spoken by Volunteer Fireman Robert Meese, 23, of the Burtchville Fire Department, a few minutes after he crawled out of the mainland shaft leading to the water intake tunnel which was ripped by an explosion Saturday, killing 17 men.

“It looked like an H-bomb hit that tunnel,” Meese said.

“This is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life.

“As soon as we entered the tunnel, I saw at least 12 to 15 bodes -- guys I know for sure were dead. Seven guys were alive that I could count.

“Some were moaning, others were praying for help”

Meese was called from a funeral to go down into the tunnel as a rescue worker to bring out men he knew because he is a former tunnel worker.

Meese and other rescue workers suggested that the explosion in the tunnel, 230 feet below ground, must have resembled the inside of a gun barrel at the moment it is fired.

“When I got into the shaft where the explosion was there were pieces of metal lying all over the place.” Meese said.

“There was no light. It was completely black.

“There were bodies there with no head or arms, and their clothes were ripped right off their bodies.”

The rescued men, when bought to the surface, had torn faces and broken bones.

All the injured were taken to Port Huron Hospital.

Meese, Fire Chief Lincoln Harrington and Firemen Robert Smith, all from Burtchville, were the first to reach the men.

The scene, Harrington said, “was worse than a battlefield.”

The explosion was so intense, he said, that air ducts made out of corrugated metal were shredded and rolled up into balls.

Jim Whipple of Port Huron who lives 400 yards from the tunnel head, heard the explosions at 3:11 p.m.

“It sounded like a sonic boom,” he said.

The blast killed 21 construction workers and injured many more, one of whom died 10  months later.

“I looked out the window and stuff was flying into the air -- lunch buckets, safety helmets and water -- and this stuff flew up 200 feet.”

Ted Grull, another volunteer fireman, said rescue workers were cutting through the shredded air ducts with torches, to get to the victims.

Larry Vernor, 24 workman who was near the end of the tunnel, said the explosion “sounded like a tornado. It picked me up and threw me about 10 feet through the air.”

Vernor said his father and brother – all off them from Tennessee -- were working at the other end of the tunnel and had been trapped by the explosion.

The tugboat Barbara Ann was standing by the cofferdam, five miles in the lake, when the explosion occurred.

Reg Malcoln, a crewman said, “We were standing by as the drillers were retrieving their steel from the hole.

“There was a loud explosion and steel came flying out. One of the drillers was knocked into the water.

“We pulled the man from the water and took other men off the cofferdam because we were afraid of another explosion.”

On the surface, at the elevator shaft, floodlights played on the scene and wives waited for word of their men.

Mrs. Cheri Fogel said at mid-evening that she still didn’t know the fate of her husband Donald 21.

“He left this morning for his regular shift.” she said.  “I don’t know if he’s trapped.”

Mrs. Don Williams, of Port Huron, complained that she wasn’t notified of the tragedy.

She drove to the site at 5 p.m. to pick up her husband Donald, 31, “because that’s when he usually gets off work.”

The explosion occurred two hours earlier and Mrs. Williams knew nothing about it.

“I hadn’t heard a damned thing from anyone.” she said. “Nobody called.”

-- James Graham, Lou Mleczko and James Tittsworth