May 26 • 05:56 AM

Legend lives on in local heroes

Area men recall firsthand accounts of tunnel explosion under Lake Huron

December 08, 2010
Every fall the radio brings us back to 1975, November 10th to be exact. Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is played continuously.

This ballad is a living memorial to the 29 souls lost in the gales of November; in the big lake called Gitchee Gumee.

But to me it also refreshes my memory of the 22 souls lost below Lake Huron on December 11, 1971.

That day 39 years ago I sat in the Texaco Restaurant on the curve east of Capac on M-21. That restaurant and gas station was operated by Alex and Leona Osborne and their family.

It, to me, was a good day. I had recently joined the Teamsters union. The business agent for that union, Gerald "Mike" Scheible, was one of the finest men I had ever met and he became my mentor in organized labor. Until this very day when faced with a problem, I think back and call on the wisdom and guidance of this man now deceased.

I was excited and jubilant on this day as Mike had called earlier with a job I was to report to on Monday. On this Saturday as I sat eating, the radio was playing and the song was interrupted with breaking news in the Blue Water area. There had been an explosion in the tunnel underneath Lake Huron being constructed by the Detroit Metropolitan Water authority.

Silence fell upon the restaurant filled with farmers, businessmen, construction workers and the local townsfolk. The Detroit water line, as it was referred to, was being constructed just three miles north of where we sat. Every day, men toiled laying the massive 16 foot concrete pipe that would supply precious water to Detroit, Flint and a host of cities and villages along its route, including Imlay City, Almont and Lapeer.

On that fateful day at approximately 3:11 p.m. an explosion caused by a build up of methane gas in the antrum shale rock formations had seeped into the tunnel.

As 43 men went about their duties in the tunnel, drilling commenced at the actual intake five miles out into the lake at the cofferdam unbeknownst by the 43 workers or their employer Greenfield and Associates.

Frank Burns and Doug Hunter stand next to memorial for fallen tunnel workers which was erected in the Fort Gratiot Park. photo by Maria Brown.
At the cofferdam, mile high drilling proceeded to drill through the remaining 38 feet of shale and into the 16 foot concrete tunnel.After cutting through the reinforced cement, the bit became lodged. The drillers broke for lunch at 1:50 p.m.

Returning an hour later they debated whether to disconnect the bit and drop it into the floor of the tunnel and retrieve it later.

For one hour and 21 minutes methane gas seeped into the tunnel. Methane is heavier than air so none rose out harmlessly into the atmosphere.

This created a giant cannon. The methane gas was like gunpowder, the shot or shrapnel would be the equipment, ventilation shafts, a 15 ton crane, a five ton gantry, a train and 43 husbands, fathers, and sons. At 311 p.m. the decision was finalized to drop the bit into the floor.

The cannon now had ignition. The spark was probably not even visible to the human eye but the fury it created was too intense. The detonation created a wave with 4,000 miles per hour velocity and a force of 15,000 pounds per foot. The train was moved 1,200 feet. The 15 ton crane was pushed 1/3 of a mile, like it was a toy.

Sheet metal, tools, chunks of concrete tore through the flesh and bone of the dedicated, loyal workforce, forever ending their lives and the dreams they held for the future with their families.

Twenty-one died instantly, or so we pray; another languished in suffering and pain for 10 months before he succumbed to his injuries. Eleven more were injured and survived.

Instantly the word of the tragedy spread. Immediately, 50 fire and rescue units from St. Clair, Sanilac and Lapeer Counties started arriving. Deputy sheriffs from St. Clair County and Undersheriff Norm Ludy took control of the situation. Coworkers of the men in the tunnel arrived and Undersheriff Ludy organized a rescue attempt led by deputies. Doctors, fire and rescue and 50 to 60 laborers and miners from Laborers Local Union 463 and Operating Engineers Local 124 were there to help.

The total commitment these men exhibited in this tragedy goes beyond what words can describe. They descended into the darkness with a selfless sincerity of conviction that we hope never has to be replicated. They went about their gruesome task with a fervor that was driven by a deep commitment to help their fellow man. As unfortunately as this tragedy was, it is soothing to know such men walk about us. They can only be called common until tragedy befalls us. Then they become dauntless heroes of a superior order.

Prior to this catastrophe a man of unconditional commitment and resolve to the rights, safety and dignities of the workers daily lowers himself into the tunnel to check on the working conditions of the men in the dark, dreary chamber. Constantly protesting the conditions, the constant and ever present methane gas had, to this man, become a crusade. He knew this was a time bomb in waiting but the laws mandating safety in 1971 had been met and pressure was being applied to complete the massive project on time and within budget.

But the voice was ever present about the unsafe conditions below the lake the Indians called Karegnondi.

The pressure for completion was so strong that this man was physically assaulted by several men and left for dead in a drainage ditch near the pumping station.

Others would have perished from the injuries in the freezing night, but not this man. He was on a mission. Like a guardian angel impervious to pain or denial of his task.

That man is Frank Burns. In 1971, Frank was the Business Manager of Laborers Local 463 in Port Huron. On that fateful day, Frank was not on site, he was in Florida fighting for worker safety and rights, something he has done now for over 50 years and continues.

Frank Burns, alongside the survivors and families of the victims, fought tirelessly to bring change to the laws pertaining to worker safety and they were successful.

Recently with Frank, I visited the memorial to the 22 men who lost their lives on that cold, blustery day—another one of the projects Frank was instrumental in. It is a fitting tribute to the 22 souls who gave their all so we could enjoy fresh, pure drinking water.

There were many heroes that long ago day. One of them now lives in Imlay City and has a business in town.

Charlie Sylla, owner of Hy Performance Concrete Pumping, was employed at Greenfield and Associates as a mechanic and welder in the tunnel on the night shift. Upon hearing of the explosion, he with other night shift workers raced to the site.

Arriving they were stopped at a roadblock set up by police and were denied entry. They parked and ran around the stationary vehicle.

Charlie Sylla was one of the first to enter the tunnel. The human carnage was so immense and catastrophic, it would not serve justice to the survivors of these men to describe.

I never did go to work on the water line. Mike Scheible sent me to the Consumers Power Company's Synthetic Natural Gas plant being constructed in Marysville where I first became a union representative, a position I held for many years with many different companies.

During those years I worked closely with Frank Burns and became friends with Charlie Sylla and many of the survivors of the tunnel and the rescuers. They taught me a lot that I will never forget, and I will never compromise what I learned from them.

Thirty-nine years later there is talk of another water line into Lake Huron. With all the cuts in state government, I hope safety is not on the short list or 22 lives will have been lost, sacrificed and forgotten in vain. Never forget the 22 bells that should be forever run on December 11.

Email Doug at

Castle Creek
Milnes Ford
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