A hissing noise emanating from a huge tank of ammonia and quick thinking among the workers led the employees to flee a Romulus chemical plant just before a series of explosions rocked the facility, setting off a fire and resulting in evacuations of neighborhoods surrounding the plant.
In the first comments from any of the eight people working at EQ Resource Recovery Inc. at the time of the blasts, one of the workers said Thursday no alarm sounded before the explosion Tuesday night as earlier reported.
Company spokesman Dan Gilbert confirmed there was no alarm.
"I was under the impression that there was an alarm," he said. "But it's inaccurate. It was a mistake in the heat of the moment to say there was an alarm."
Because the fire was still burning in some spots Thursday, investigators were unable to get into the plant to determine what caused the explosions. No one was injured in the blasts.
The employee was one of four working at the plant at the time of the blasts who were contacted by the Free Press on Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The man said the workers managed to get out of the plant safely only because someone heard the hissing and radioed the potential danger to the others.
That matched the description provided by Gilbert, who said the men noticed a strange smell and a hissing. He said someone radioed the other men to "Get out."
"Everyone happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the word out," the worker said. "It's pretty amazing. As I ran from the building, I could feel the heat on the back of my neck. The smell of ammonia was everywhere and flames shot up into the air like a geyser."
"Whatever you saw on TV was nothing compared to that first blast," the man said. He said he does not know what caused the initial explosion.
The other workers contacted declined to comment.
The employees who were working at the time met with two counselors Wednesday, the man said. Some of the workers complained that no alarm sounded, he said.
"There's no little red box with a lever that you pull and everybody gets out," he said. "There's no general emergency alarm. There are no strobe lights."
Maura Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth, said Thursday she was not sure what kind of alarm systems are required at the plant.
The agency is not looking into the incident, she said, but if worker safety concerns are raised, that could change.
Gilbert said the plant has all the alarms required by state and federal regulations, though he didn't know exactly what alarm systems are in place. He said he knows the plant has alarm systems for overflows in the tanks.
"There isn't a general alarm on the site," he said. "We must have an emergency evacuation plan and we do. I'm not 100% sure what our permits say as far as alarms but we wouldn't be in operation if we didn't have everything that's required." He said the plant is inspected every three months by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Gilbert said all precautions and warning systems will likely be reevaluated in the wake of the blasts.
"I'm sure everything is going to be open for whatever we can do to make the operation safer," Gilbert said.