Horror in a Port Huron water intake tunnel

AP Photo

Rescue workers carry out the first survivor found after the tunnel explosion.

On Dec. 11, 1971, a blast resembling a bullet in a rifle barrel shot  through a tunnel under construction 220 feet beneath the shoreline of Lake Huron, killing 21 and leaving  nine injured. The force of the explosion was so great that the bodies of the dead were mangled beyond recognition.

Construction of the tunnel had begun in the spring of 1968 and was plagued by controversy, mishaps and plan changes from the start. The tunnel was to go five miles under the lake off Port Huron through bedrock to access fresh water for metropolitan Detroit. It was to be capable from the beginning of pumping 400 million gallons of pure drinking water per day to a thirsty Detroit, later expanding to 1.2 billion gallons to meet the demands of a rapidly growing area. The $120-million project was only three weeks from completion at the time of the blast.

“I don’t remember much about the explosion,” said one of the survivors, Richard Green, then 27. “I thought an air line broke, but it pushed hell out of me. It seemed like a bomb. I was on top of the form (for concrete pouring) and the next thing I knew I was flying through the air.”

Green said 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.”

      Hundreds of police and emergency workers joined the rescue efforts while sightseers jammed the Port Huron area at the tunnel entrance. Police attempted to keep the roads cleared but were quickly overwhelmed by the curious crowds.

Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs left a banquet and rushed to the hospital to visit the survivors before going on to the disaster scene.

The blast occurred at 3:11 p.m., sending debris out both ends of the tunnel. Corrugated metal air ducts were ripped to shreds with knife-like edges. One 15-ton piece of equipment was thrown 40 feet.

UPI Photo
Grim-faced construction workers place the remains of one of their co-workers killed in the explosion into the back of an ambulance.

      Rescue workers using flashlights went into the horror, braving the methane gas and hazardous debris. They were called out when the gas registered 80 percent of the atmosphere in the tunnel.

John Atkinson, an employee of Greenfield & Associates, the Livonia-based firm building the tunnel, said “89 percent will kill you” even without a blast. Huge fans were brought in to clear the tunnel so rescue efforts could continue.

Twelve workers near the elevator survived the blast unhurt and carried two injured workers out. Rescuers retrieved seven more seriously injured workers from deeper in the tunnel.

Ambulance worker Daniel Eastwood and two co-workers entered the tunnel: “At first, as the elevator descended to the tunnel (230 feet below the ground surface), I was scared. The tunnel had exploded once before and I began to think it could go again.

Debris litters the tunnel following the explosion.

      “But when we got into the tunnel and I saw how badly those men needed help, I guess I forgot all about my fear.”

Eastwood and other rescuers, many of them seasoned tunnel men, moved about looking for anyone who could be helped.

“When we found men alive, we bandaged them, tied them to a stretcher and then moved on, leaving them for rescue workers to carry out. They would cry for us not to leave them but we had to move on,” he said. “It was bad, real bad.”

The two other ambulance workers, Paul Richards and Alexander Vargo Jr., had to be evacuated themselves, Richards with an injured hand, and Vargo passed out from lack of oxygen. Not all rescuers had oxygen masks. And many who did removed them so they could move faster.

“I guess I was getting a little dizzy toward the end,” Eastwood said after the high gas levels forced all to be called out by 8 p.m.

“I was glad to get out of there, but I’d go down again if they would let me.”

Most involved knew the dangers of tunneling and of the methane gas that accumulates during almost any dig. Just a few months earlier on June 24, 17 tunnelers died in Sylmar, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, when a spark, from a machine set off a pocket of methane deep in the tube.

About the Michigan blast, Fire Chief Lincoln Harrington of the Burthchville Volunteer Fire Department said, “I believe it was a gas explosion set off by an acetylene torch.” One of the first into the tunnel, Harrington said he found the torch with gas still bubbling from it through water on the floor of the tunnel. “I turned off its tank,” he said.

Friends comfort Mrs. Frank Polk after she learned that her husband was among the dead.

      All the injured were in poor condition, but none were critical. The rescue workers called the scene “worse than a battlefield.”

“It looked like an H-bomb hit that tunnel,” said volunteer fireman Robert Meese. “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 bodies – guys I knew for sure were dead. Seven guys were alive that I could count. Some were moaning; others were praying for help.”

Arms, legs and body parts littered the blast area. Dr. Elmore Shoudy 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.”

“It sounded like a sonic boom,” said Jim Whipple, who lived about 400 yards from the tunnel head. “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.”

Cheri Fogel drove to the scene at 5 p.m. to pick up her husband Donald, 21, not having heard of the explosion. Her father-in-law, Donald Fogel Sr., a rugged looking man in his 60s, had frantically crawled into the tunnel after hearing of the blast, knowing his son worked with the 42-man crew.

UPI Photo
A tired rescue team files out of the tunnel shaft after recovering the 21 dead from the twister debris.

      “He was determined to get down there and look for Don,” said Fogel’s stepson, Ed Kelly. “I tried to hold him, but I couldn’t. He took my hard hat and followed one of the rescue crews into the hole.”

The father’s search was in vain. The body of his son was one of the 21 carried to the surface in yellow plastic bags by recovery workers.

The State of Michigan paid $750 for each funeral. Widows with no children were awarded $79 per week, and those with children received $102 per week for 500 weeks.

Lawsuits named the City of Detroit, Greenfield Construction and nine other firms. The eventual $8.5-million payout was the largest ever in Wayne County history at the time.

During the trial heated controversy arose over testimony of safety violations. Suspicions over the cause of the blast shifted from the acetylene torch to work being done at the other end of the tunnel, where a second crew had been drilling from the offshore station into the long tunnel. It now seemed likely that the breakthrough of the drill into the 16-foot tunnel could have triggered the blast.

One witness, Edward S. Johnson, who was in charge of the City of Detroit engineers and inspectors on the tunnel job, testified that it would have been prudent to evacuate the tunnel during drilling of the vent shaft

The year before the explosion, coffer dams are sunk at the end of the tunnel intake in Lake Huron, five miles from the shore. It was from this point that workers were drilling a vent shaft into the tunnel, unknown to the crews inside.

      Asked if he or anyone ordered such an evacuation, Johnson answered in a hushed voice, “No, sir.”

Johnson testified that five days before the balst he told his boss, Water Department engineer Ernest Cedroni, “I suppose we’ll have to shut Greenfield (the crews doing the work inside the tunnel) down. At that time he told me that we, meaning the City of Detroit, did not have that authority.”

Johnson denied that a “conscious decision” had been made not to tell the workmen that the ventilation shaft was being drilled “because they were ignorant hill people who panicked easily.”

The tunnel was finally completed in 1974 with the capacity to draw 800 million gallons of water a day, but its landward treatment plant could only treat and pump 240 million gallons a day. The original plans to eventually use full capacity had been based on 1966 population projections that never came to pass.

The dead:

Vernard Woolstenhulme, 63, of Lexington
Frank Polk, 27, of Port Huron
Gerald Curtis, 32, of Port Huron
Gerald Hardel, 30, of Knox, In.
Walter Woods, 36, of Port Huron
James Beesley, 34, of Port Huron
Guilliermo Teran, 36, of Flint
Claybourne Simpkins, 38, of Hamlet, In.
Romualdo Alvarez, 40, of Flint
Kenneth Hawes, 33, of Port Huron
Manuel Abasta, 31, of Port Huron
Raymond Comeau, 35, of Goodells
Martin Laretz, 25, of Lexington
Glen Verner, 44, of Tuttletoen, Tenn.
Charles Epperson, 44, of Port Huron
Donald Fogel, 21, of Avoca
Donald Williams, 44 of Port Huron
Rosewell Brown, 43, of Port Huron
Patrick Dingman, 35, of St. Clair
Gary Roehn, 20, of Lexington
Jimmy H. Reighard, 32, of Robinsville, N.C.

AP Photo
Two unidentified women sob as they await news of their loved ones from the rescue teams.

(This story was compiled using clips and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News