Fire and Courage at the Rouge

Revolutionary Worker #998, March 14, 1999

This correspondence was sent to the RW by a long-time reader at the Ford Motor Company's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

At 1:10 p.m. on February 1, I was at work in the Ford Rouge complex when the power suddenly went off. People cheered when we were sent home early.

But when we got to the parking lot, our hearts sank. A seemingly endless stream of ambulances flew by, sirens wailing. Something horrible had happened.

A boiler in the Rouge powerhouse had exploded, producing a rush of superheated steam, a huge fireball, and many secondary explosions. One worker, Donald Harper, 58, died instantly. Other workers were seriously burned over much of their bodies. Nineteen were rushed to hospitals. As I write this, five more men-- Cody Boatwright, 51; Ken Anderson, 44; John Arseneau, 45; Ron Maritz, 46; and Warren Blow--have died from their injuries, bringing the total of dead to six. Seven workers remain hospitalized in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Toledo burn units.

When the explosion happened, workers responded heroically. Many risked death to drag and carry injured workers out--as secondary explosions went off around them and parts of the roof gave way. Some went back into the burning building in search of the injured. Other workers displayed quick thinking that may have saved many lives--turning off valves and cutting off the flow of gases.

Meanwhile, from the moment of this disaster, the managers and owners of Ford rushed before the cameras--to declare their sorrow and insist this event had been a tragic, unavoidable accident. Typical damage control.

Many workers throughout the plant helped me piece together a true picture of what happened. This factory has a long history of revolutionary activity. As we approach the 1000th issue of the Revolutionary Worker, it suddenly occurred to me that every one of those issues have been sold and read here at the Rouge.

A number of the workers who helped me with this letter are regular RW readers. One worker told me she remembers seeing her father read the RW since she was a small child. Imagine a second generation of RW readers out there at the Rouge!

Rundown Boilers

The Ford Rouge complex, built starting 1918, runs for about a mile along the river here in Dearborn, Michigan. It covers 1,100 acres with blast furnaces, steel mills and factories that make vehicle frames, engines, fuel tanks, stamped metal parts, windshields and the Ford Mustang. Over the last decades, the Rouge has become highly robotized. The factory that employed 100,000 people during World War 2, now runs production with about 11,000 workers.

The Rouge powerhouse is a large seven-story building--housing seven boilers and several electrical generators. The boilers heat water to steam--to turn the turbines that generate electricity. The powerhouse supplies electricity and steam-heating for the Rouge complex--producing enough power to light up Boston, a city with half a million people.

This powerhouse was an outdated, rundown disaster-waiting-to-happen. And the Ford management knew it.

Construction had just begun on a new powerhouse that would use safer fueling methods than the coal dust and blast furnace gas of the old powerhouse. One man from a boiler company described these huge boilers as "kegs of dynamite."

A hospitalized boiler operator told the Detroit Free Press that the power plant workers had both cheered and fretted last fall, when they heard that a new power plant would be built. He said, "I knew it'd be running on bubble gum and bobby pins... I knew they'd only fix what they had to fix to keep it running."

The powerhouse jobs had long been seen as "easy" work reserved for higher-paid skilled tradesmen. Other workers sometimes joked that the operators sat around "nursing" the boilers. And, not surprisingly, these jobs were mainly filled by white workers. More than half of the workers in the larger Rouge complex are Black. However, of the workers killed or injured in the powerhouse, only Don Harper was Black. The rest of the dead and injured were white. Looking into it now, it is possible to see that these once-easy jobs had become quite intense, stressful and even more dangerous.

One operator told me that layoffs had hit the powerhouse hard--affecting safety. He and I were talking in a public area of the plant. He lowered his voice so that no one could hear what we were saying. One man was often doing what two used to do, he said. Maintenance procedures were often not done at all. He added that a lot of people are angry about that with these deaths and injuries.

Workers told me about leaky valves at the powerhouse that were repeatedly reported to management. One worker told the Detroit Free Press that leaking gas valves on pipes leading up to the boiler were due to be replaced. The replacement valves were sitting on a wooden pallet when the explosion happened.

One worker remarked that in all the conversations he has had over this disaster, no one has suggested the explosion was the result of "human error" by the workers.

Family Accident or Disaster for Profit?

Was this explosion an unavoidable accident? Was it just one of those things you can't prevent?

From what we know here at the Rouge, the answer is "NO." This was a "for profit" disaster. It did not have to happen.

It killed six of our fellow workers. Two more may die from their terrible burns. Nine more men have been badly injured and may never recover or work again. How many people lost fathers, husbands, and friends in that hellish rush of hot gases?

Ford Motor Company knew this powerhouse was being run unsafely--"on bubble gum and bobby pins." They waited until the last minute to even consider a new power plant.

And clearly there was money available, all along, for the necessary construction. Ford Motor Company has $22 billion in cash reserves. Their executives get multi-million dollar bonuses. Hundreds of millions of dollars flow annually to their wealthy owners. Can Ford really argue they couldn't have built a new, more modern, safer, gas-fired power plant 5, 10, even 15 years ago?

They had the money, they knew of the dangers... and they chose not to do it. Ford just spent $6 billion to buy Volvo Motors--to increase their market share and image. That kind of decision has high priority.

Ever since the powerhouse explosion, I can't help remembering another, famous, calculated decision Ford Motor Company made: In the 1970s, the gas tanks of Pinto cars were exploding on impact, burning people to death inside. Ford knew about this problem. They could fix it by installing a cheap shield in every Pinto. But Ford decided not to make those modifications. In internal memos they coldly said that it was cheaper to let people burn and pay the damages, than to correct all the Pintos!

Downplaying the Larger Dangers

Workers here at Rouge say that on February 1 there was danger of a much more massive explosion "chain reacting" through the entire Rouge Complex through a network of underground tunnels. And, it is pretty clear to me now that Ford officials knew all along that other parts of the larger complex could have exploded. Hospital workers in Detroit have told me that calls were put out for every available ambulance in the entire Detroit metropolitan area to go to the Rouge. At least 45 ambulances stayed at Rouge for hours after the powerhouse fire was under control. Every hospital in this whole area was put on full disaster alert. They cleared their emergency rooms and had ER personnel ready for a big wave of injured workers. Ford evacuated the whole Rouge complex. All of these measures show that the company was worried that the explosion might spread past the power house.

The powerhouse workers who made their way to the various cut-off valves may have saved everyone. Meanwhile, company spin-doctors have worked overtime to deny that there was any real danger to the larger workforce.

Over many decades, this capitalist system has worked hard to give auto workers a feeling that they are part of One Big Happy Family with their exploiters. The heads of Ford wanted to keep that "family" feeling alive during the disaster--by rolling out a series of public relations gestures. The Detroit News described the company's purpose well: "to avoid or minimize damage to the company's profitability, reputation and ability to operate."

A word or two needs to be said about the stand taken by union officials of the United Auto Workers. Basically they have gone overboard to help hide the role of Ford (and capitalism generally) in the deaths of the Rouge powerhouse workers. A UAW Vice President was on the TV saying he was proud of his organization's relationship with Ford, and impressed by Ford's attitude during this disaster.

After the disaster, I watched massive resources mobilized to return the Rouge to production. Generators popped up almost overnight. Money, man-power, expertise, equipment--it is amazing how much human wealth and labor can be mobilized by these capitalists when something threatens their production (and profits). And I could not help thinking, "Why is such a mobilization never done for the needs of the people--why isn't homelessness solved overnight? Why aren't the public schools renovated with such energy? What about the projects, and slum housing? Why weren't such resources used to renovate the Rouge plant's powerhouse before it blew up?" Everything for profit. Nothing for humanity.


All of us who work in the Rouge (and millions who heard of this disaster) applaud the self-sacrificing spirit of powerhouse workers who risked their lives to save others. We cry with families of our fellow workers who lie dead or injured. Our sorrow and anger must be an indictment of the everything-for-profit, anything-else-be-damned system. That system caused the fireball of February 1 and will continue to produce such disasters as long as it exists.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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