Port Huron, MI Water Tunnel Explosion, Dec 1971

Port Huron MI Water Tunnel Explosion Memorial.jpg



Port Huron, Mich. (AP) -- A former safety inspector on the Lake Huron water tunnel, where 22 men died in a violent explosion Saturday, charged today that his superiors had ignored safety so they could stay on schedule in construction of ROGER ROBAUD, 36, of Mount Pleasant in a copyrighted interview with the Detroit News.
There was no immediate comment from those in charge of the big project which is to supply water to metropolitan Detroit and some other communities. ROBAUD'S charges were leveled almost at the hour that teams of federal and state investigators were slated to enter the six mile long tunnel shaft to see if there were any additional bodies and to seek clues as to the cause of the explosion that tossed men and machinery about in the underwater tunnel.
GERALD REMUS, general manager of the Detroit Metropolitan Water Services (DMWS) said it was impossible to tell as yet how much damage had been done to the $120 million project which had been expected to supply water to Detroit by July.
Authorities said their first concern was to probe through some of the tangled wreckage to see if any more workmen had been pinned under the debris. ROBAUD, who worked on the project for about a year before he left May 21, said, "the whole project was just full of negligence. I am just amazed that the horrible working conditions did not cause something like this a long time ago."
REMUS was at the tunnel area today to direct the search for possible additional bodies.
"We think we have all of them out," said a grim-faced GERALD REMUS, DMWS manager. "But if you saw that tangled up mess of debris, you'd understand how somebody could still be down there."
Authorities were still uncertain Sunday how many men had been in the 16-foot diameter, six-mile-long tunnel which extends five miles out under Lake Huron at a depth of some 230 feet.
In addition to the 22 dead -- four of whom had yet to be identified -- eight other miners lay in area hospitals, six in serious condition. Another had been treated and released, as had two ambulance drivers.
Approximately 10 miners apparently escaped on their own, authorities said.
REMUS refused to speculate on the cause of the blast. He termed "conjecture" a wide-spread theory that overhead, offshore drilling of a ventilation shaft, which penetrated the tunnel about 80 minutes prior to the explosion, touched off pockets of natural gas.
"We want to get the experts in there, and see what might have happened," he said.
The cleaning up of wreckage and the search for more bodies continued Sunday as investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Michigan Department of Health and the Michigan Department of Labor began combing through the twisted equipment and debris.
The evacuation of bodies and search for survivors was interrupted twice Satruday night and early Sunday morning by a buildup of methane gas in the shaft. It was only after several hours of pumping air into the shaft that the tunnel was declared safe and operations resumed.
Muddy and grim-faced workmen carried bags containing bodies to waiting ambulances, which rushed them to a temporary morgue at Port Huron Hospital.
Identification was made more difficult by the force of the explosion, which had left some bodies virtually unrecognizable. Rescuers reported decapitations, severed body parts, and disfigurements.
During the late afternoon and night, relatives and friends awaiting word of their men, gathered in a construction shed at the entrance to the tunnel.
Robert Bower, an independent petroleum geologist and consultant who examined the construction site a year ago, said methane gas buildups occasionally had been detected in the tunnel.
Bower said the Antrim Shale through which the tunnel was cut contained isolated pockets of natural gas, and that work was normally halted when the gas pockets were discovered.
"They would hit little fissures that would have gas in them," he explained, "and they might blow out for maybe 10 minutes or half an hour, so they would shut down this machinery so there would not be any fire."
He said the amount of gas inside the fissures was small, less than 100 pounds of pressure.
Barry Brown, director of the Michigan Department of Labor, who was instructed by Gov. William Milliken to conduct a complete investigation, said he was aware of the gas-fire speculation.
"We don't have any precise information yet," he said. "Until we're in the tunnel and can run some tests, we simply won't know what happened."
Brown noted, however, that the Lake Huron explosion was "remarkable similar" to one which killed 17 miners in California last June. In that accident, near Los Angeles, a spark from mining equipment ignited a pocket of methane gas deep in a tunnel. Ironically, one of the miners who died in the explosion had spoken of worry over the gas.
Inspector Kenneth Hawes had said in an interview last week with the Sarnia Observer that many workers worried about careless smoking in the tunnel.
"This is why we can't have the men smoking down there," Hawes said. "But they have a stinking, lousy job and many of them do light up."
REMUS revealed that the tunnel had been equipped with continually operating sensory devices which would sound an alarm and shut off equipment in the event of oxygen loss, gas buildup or water seepage.
"We had the best men possible taking every precaution imaginable," he said. "We had so much detection equipment and supervisory personnel looking for anything which could lead to an accident that it makes it even harder to hear."
The tunnel, about six weeks from completion, is part of a water system designed to provide high quality Lake Huron water within a year for Detroit and its customers on the metropolitan water system.
By 1980, the system was slated to pump water to Ann Arbor and Lansing, and was planned to accomodate the water demands of an estimated 8.9 million people by the year 2000.
The workers were finishing laying cement in the huge tunnel, which leads out under the lake to an intake shaft which extends upward to within 50 feet of the lake surface.
The tunnel will be capable of carrying 1.2 billion gallons of water daily and was dug by a massive mechanical "mole" guided by laser beams.
Under construction since 1968, the $120 million water system was planned by the DMWS, which includes representatives from Detroit, Oakland and Macomb Counties. From the intake crib and tunnel, the water will flow into a 10-foot diameter main to the Imlay Interchange Plant over 25 miles away, and then through smaller lines to Detroit and Flint.

Port Hurton, Mich. (AP) -- Following is a list of the dead from the explosion in a water tunnel under construction near Port Huron.
The list, as released by the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, included 18 victims. Four more have yet to be identified, and Sheriff Norman D. Meharg said no miners were considered missing, as it had been reported earlier. The dead:
VERNER WOOLSTENHULME, 63, of Lexington, Mich., and originally from Chicago.
FRANK E. POLK, 27, of Port Huron.
GERALD CURTIS, 32, of Port Huron.
DONALD HARDEL, 30, of Port Huron and previously of Knox, Ind.
WALTER J. WOODS, 36, of Port Huron.
JAMES BEESELY, 34, of Port Huron.
GUILLERMO TERAN, 36, of Flint, Mich.
CLAYBOURNE SIMKINS, 38, of Port Huron and previously of Hamlet, Ind.
KENNETH HAWES, 33, of Port Huron.
MANUEL ABASTA, 31, of Port Huron.
RAYMOND N. COMEAU, 35, of Goodells, Mich.
MARTIN LARETZ, 25, of Lexington.
GLEN VERNER, 44, of Tuttletown, Tenn.
CHARLES EPPERSON, 44, of Port Huron.
DONALD FOGAL, JR., of Avoca, Mich.
DONALD WILLILAMS, 44, of Port Huron.
ROSWELL E. BROWN, 43, of Port Huron.

The News Palladium Benton Harbor Michigan 1971-12-13