America’s Most Destructive Industrial Fire
When an inferno destroyed General Motors’ transmission factory in Livonia, MI, it plunged the automaker into a monumental crisis.
When General Motors opened the Detroit Transmission plant in Livonia, MI, in 1949, the 1.5-million-square-foot facility symbolized the resounding success of the most popular component in American automobiles—the Hydra-Matic Drive transmission. Millions of buyers, anxious to dump prewar clunkers and the tedious manual shifting that propelled them, wanted cars that automatically cruised through the gears. GM was ready to supply them.
Introduced as a $57 option on 1940 Oldsmobiles, Hydra-Matic was an instant sensation. The company built 900,000 of the four-speeds over the next nine years at a rickety, six-story plant on Riopelle Street in Detroit, including 55,000 for World War II tanks, tank destroyers and armored vehicles. During that time, Hydra-Matic Drive became synonymous with automatic shifting; there were no serious competitors.
Located in suburban Detroit, the new Livonia plant was recognized as one of the most advanced manufacturing and assembly operations in the world. It had the capacity, tooling and expertise in building planetary gear transmissions to fulfill market expectations for the boom times ahead. Four years later, errant sparks from a welder’s tool touched off a firestorm that reduced the operation and its 3,318 machines to grotesque piles of twisted metal and charred bricks strewn across 34 acres of smoldering wreckage. At $50 million (almost $500 million in today’s dollars) it was—and still is—the most destructive industrial fire in American history.
Livonia was the sole source of Hydra-Matics, turning out 4,000 per day. It had produced its 4 millionth unit prior to the Aug. 12, 1953, conflagration. Ninety percent of Oldsmobiles were equipped with the transmission, as were 85 percent of Pontiacs and all Cadillacs and Lincolns. The transmissions were also installed in some 50 percent of Hudson, Kaiser and Nash vehicles. There were no customer backlogs; Hydra-Matics went into vehicles as soon as they were received.
As a result of the fire, GM furloughed 26,000 employees, placed thousands more on reduced hours, and slashed new car production by 100,000 units. Suddenly, the world’s largest company faced a monumental crisis.
The fire broke out in the south end of the plant in the flywheel section, where the only firewall on the premises separated manufacturing from a two-story administrative building. A monorail conveyor 11 feet above the floor was transporting stamped metal parts to and from a rustproofing dip tank brimming with 450 gallons of flammable chemicals. A drip pan extended 4 inches below the conveyor to capture its oily spillages.
Around 3:40 p.m. a contractor’s welding crew was repairing a steam pipe beneath the plant’s 21-foot ceiling when sparks from an oxyacetylene torch sailed into the drip pan, setting its liquid deposits ablaze. Two ground-level crew members grabbed fire extinguishers, scrambled up a ladder and began smothering the flames. The handheld extinguishers fizzled out and fire ripped along the drip pan canal, rupturing its metal frame and splattering burning residue onto a wood floor marinated in creosote coal tar and an imperceptible veneer of chemical condensate. The fire moved swiftly, lighting up a nearby heat-treating oven as it took off on a rampage through the plant. Thick black smoke billowed in its wake.
There were no fire barriers to impede the inferno and no alarms to alert employees to evacuate the building. Lacking proper training and adequate equipment, an in-house fire brigade could do nothing. The plant’s only overhead sprinklers rained down on shipping, receiving and storage, but not manufacturing.
Mildred Artrip, starting the second hour of her Wednesday afternoon shift, “suddenly saw people from the back running through the plant. They were shouting it was on fire. We grabbed our lunch buckets and ran. It looked like a tornado. There was black smoke all over the place.”
As Mildred and 4,000 other employees sprinted for the exits, searing heat, trapped by a ceiling without vents to expel it, ate through the roof deck’s thin steel plates. Two thousand tons of tar, hot mopped between three layers of fiberboard insulation and sealed by an asphalt blanket, ignited across the roof’s broad expanse. Burning pellets of tar spewed into nine open tanks filled with almost 4,000 gallons of flammable liquids and over metalworking machines, heat-treating ovens and furnaces with lubricants and cutting and quenching oils coursing through them. Roaring fire engulfed the entire plant.
Some 150 firemen aboard 31 firetrucks from Livonia, Detroit and seven surrounding communities raced to the scene, sirens blaring. First responders watched helplessly as the center section of the roof collapsed, buckling red brick walls. Pressure from hoses fell short of covering the two-block-long blaze, restricting firefighters to soaking a 50- to 75-foot perimeter from widely scattered hydrants. A volunteer fireman died of a heart attack while unloading hoses in the day’s 87 F heat. Beneath the fallen roof, fire burned undisturbed through the night.
Office workers from the smoke-filled second floor of the administrative building smashed windows and climbed onto the roof where they were rescued. The building was scorched but didn’t burn, leaving irreplaceable blueprints, engineering data and personnel files intact.
“If our records had gone, it would have taken us three times as long to come back,” Livonia plant manager Edward Kaegi later recalled.
Police blocked roads leading to the plant, but a black cloud hovering over the area attracted thousands of spectators, including a newspaper delivery boy who pedaled over on his bike. “People were pouring out of the building,” he told a reporter. “Most of them had handkerchiefs over their faces, and all their faces were blackened by smoke.”
Miraculously, there were no fatalities among transmission employees, and only 15 were treated for minor injuries. But, three men from Ternstedt Manufacturing, a GM division that shared the building, were trapped inside and suffocated after helping others escape. The conveyor and drip pan where the fire originated ran parallel and adjacent to a concrete block wall separating Ternstedt’s 133,000-square-foot operation from the GM plant. Ternstedt’s 1,500 employees were producing guidance systems for Air Force fighter planes and pathfinders for Army tanks. State police attempted to retrieve classified documents, but smoke and flames drove them back. Ironically, fire destroyed a Ternstedt plant in Detroit just a year earlier.
GM launched Operation Hydra-Matic, a crisis management program that mobilized all the resources, talent and financial wherewithal available to a vast corporation. Devised by manufacturing leadership in an overnight meeting while the fire still glowed, the plan had a single goal: Restore full production of Hydra-Matics in the shortest possible time.
Three hundred of the company’s most experienced and knowledgeable manufacturing professionals joined specialty teams of 10 to 20 members and were told to disregard corporate protocols and management hierarchies. They included experts in plant start-ups, production processes and machine design and maintenance. Their new homes were every available motel room in Livonia and beyond.
When the fire died out, a battalion of cranes, bulldozers, dump trucks, and a crew that grew to 1,000 workers began plowing through the debris, working nonstop, thanks to floodlights rushed in from Hollywood. Two men were electrocuted when a crane cable lifting a load of roofing steel they were guiding brushed against a 40,000-volt high-tension wire.
Machine operators and maintenance specialists from Livonia identified damaged machines hoisted onto the parking lot. Master mechanics flown in from GM plants nationwide determined which ones could be salvaged. A thousand machines were burned beyond repair. The remaining 2,300 were dispatched to 128 machine tool builders and GM plants across the U.S. Charred and disfigured with melted parts and burned-out wires and motors, the machines were dismantled and rebuilt.
The first shipments of remanufactured machines were unloaded at GM docks just 23 days later. In the meantime, purchasing agents fanned out to buy tooling and equipment from companies in North America, England, Germany and Sweden.
Suppliers from all over the Midwest converged on the Livonia plant office building on the day following the fire to bid on 400 Hydra-Matic parts spread out on tables. Eighty-four companies signed contracts on the spot to produce pieces large and small in specified volumes under tight delivery dates. GM “expediters” were regular visitors to parts and rebuilder plants to ensure quality and schedule commitments were fulfilled.
Eight days after the fire, GM signed a lease with Kaiser Motors for a 1.5-million-square-foot section of the former Willow Run B-24 bomber plant near Ypsilanti, MI, just 20 miles west of Livonia. The company bought the entire 4.4-million-square-foot facility two months later for $26 million and occupied the space where C-119 cargo planes had been built.
Forty engineers designed a plant floor layout in 17 days with precise positioning of 3,400 machines in an interlaced production network. Twenty-five hundred engineers, technicians and contractor crews alternated two 10-hour shifts to install and test equipment, erect a lower ceiling for ductwork, electrical circuitry and conveyors, and restore fire-scarred jigs and fixtures.
The project included an 86,000-square-foot plant-within-a-plant for assembly of Hydra-Matic’s intricate planetary gear sets. A precursor to today’s high-tech clean rooms, the walled-off, air-conditioned structure had a locked-in temperature of 74 F and air pressure set to 4 ounces per square inch above normal to flush out dust particles when doors opened.
The hulking Riopelle plant, now a Hydra-Matic parts supplier, activated a makeshift assembly line on Oct. 21 that produced 2,100 units over the next several weeks. A team of research and development engineers (future GM president Ed Cole among them) had conducted final testing of the original Hydra-Matic Drive at Riopelle in 1939.
On Nov. 4, with new and refurbished equipment humming and 8,000 trained workers ready to roll, a small batch of Hydra-Matics passed through the Willow Run assembly system, the first of 82 million transmissions to be built there over the next 57 years. Production rose to 4,000 units per day by Dec. 18, equaling Livonia output.
Operation Hydra-Matic had reached its objective in four months and four days, 13 days ahead of schedule, in time to supply 1954 model Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Pontiacs and other OEM customers. Restoration of Hydra-Matic production was acclaimed as an industrial miracle.
Over the decades, the Willow Run plant produced transmissions for GM cars and trucks, Ford, Nissan, Willys, Rambler, Hudson and Checker models, plus military vehicles and European sports cars Ferrari and Jaguar. GM also licensed manufacturing rights to Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Technology advances and a long line of Hydra-Matic descendants flowed from the operation, financed by hundreds of millions of dollars in design, development and plant expansions. Everything came to a halt after GM declared bankruptcy and closed the plant on Dec. 23, 2010.
The Livonia calamity was a punishing and costly lesson for GM, and the company quickly decreed that new plants be designed with total sprinkler coverage, spray nozzles for dip tanks and drip and quench pans, properly placed firewalls, draft curtains to force heat through ceiling vents, and parapets that functioned as rooftop fire barriers. Welding and cutting operations had to be approved in advance by plant protection inspectors.