June 16 • 12:57 PM

Blaze a blow to Champion

300 employees stalled as Champion Bus works to resume production

With inclement weather and a series of explosions keeping them at bay, firefighters from nine departments attack a fire that consumed the main assembly plant at Champion Bus, Inc. on Sunday evening. Firefighters were on the scene for 17 hours. photo by Randy Jorgensen.

February 17, 2010
IMLAY TWP. — One of the area's largest and longest standing employers was dealt a major blow on Sunday when flames ripped through Champion Bus Inc.

Firefighters from nine local departments responded around 7:40 p.m. on Feb. 14 to the manufacturing plant on Graham Road, south of Old M-21.

By the time the flames were extinguished 17 hours later, Champion's 100,000 square-foot assembly building had been reduced to several large piles of rubble.

Champion was founded in 1953 and in 1972, built the facilities that currently house the commercial bus operation. The company employs about 300 people.

Imlay City Fire Chief Kip Reaves said within minutes of the alarm, firefighters from Imlay City and several neighboring departments converged to battle the blaze well into the morning hours of Monday.

Reaves said the first alert of the fire came from Imlay City Fire Capt. Andy Kustowski, who was on his way home when he noticed a "glow in the sky."

"He reported that it was already about 25 percent involved in flames when he got there," noted Reaves.

Reaves said Assistant Fire Chief Rick Horton assumed incident command as the fire grew in size and intensity.

"Fire trucks were on the scene and working within about 10 minutes of the call," said Reaves, who noted that about a dozen explosions echoed through the burning building.

Providing mutual aid at the scene were the Almont, Goodland, Attica, Mussey, Berlin and Arcadia township fire departments, along with firefighters from Lapeer City and Brown City.

Asst. Chief Horton estimated that nearly a million gallons of water were poured onto the flames, most of it drawn from five ponds located along Graham Road.

To accommodate the process, portions of the north/south road had to be shut down for several hours as crews drew water from the ponds.

"The cold weather hampered us during the process," said Reaves. "The thick ice caused equipment to break down and we had a frozen hydrant."

"Our hoses, nozzles and hydrants became iced up as did a couple of fire trucks," said Reaves. "One firefighter was injured and taken to the emergency room. He was treated and released several hours later."

Reaves added that firefighters were further assisted by Lapeer County Sheriff's deputies, Lapeer County EMS, local police and Lapeer County Road Commission workers who delivered much-needed salt to the fire scene.

"It's too early to guess at the cause and dollar damage to the building," said Reaves. "A Michigan State Police fire investigator has been called in to assess the loss."

Horton noted that several firefighters at the scene are employed by Champion Bus.

"We hope there are no permanent job losses resulting from the fire," said Horton. "We want to thank our neighboring fire departments and everyone that assisted at the scene. The people at Champion Bus were also very helpful and cooperative."

On Monday morning, Champion Bus, Inc. President John Resnik said the company intends to resume limited production in its second building as soon as possible.

"We had a brief meeting with our employees this morning," said Resnik. "We have a good crew that is up to the challenge. We'll be back up and running as soon as possible."

Veteran Imlay City firefighter Charlie Boadway is one of about a dozen Lapeer County firefighters employed at Champion.

"I've been (at Champion) for 17-and-a-half years," Boadway said. "I do all the new electrical hookups on the buses.

"It was a shock. It was difficult to watch the plant go up in flames—pretty traumatic. We're all like a big family here."

For now, Boadway and his fellow workers can only speculate on future operations at the plant.

"We don't know what's going to happen," he said. "They say they want to rebuild but it could be a long time. They're going to put us on a calling list. We may have to collect unemployment.

"No matter what," Boadway continued, "everybody did a good job at the scene. It was a tough fire to fight, with all the buildings collapsing."

Lapeer County Sheriff's deputies reported that gawkers caused continuing traffic control problems along both M-21 and Graham Road.

Champion Bus Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Thor Industries. The facility began producing Cutaway buses in 1981. The company currently produces specialized and mainstream commercial buses on 73 acres in Imlay Township. The company had nearly 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space before the fire and employs about 300 people; nearly half of them in the burned-out building.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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