Work resumes at Indiana General Motors plant after explosion


Employees have returned to work at a General Motors metal-stamping plant in Indiana following a chemical explosion that killed a contractor and injured several others.

GM spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen says the Marion plant's first-shift employees reported for work Wednesday morning at the plant about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

The incident killed one worker and injured eight.

GM workers say they felt the danger first - a shaking boom, from an explosion in the northwest corner of Marion's 2.7 million square-foot stamping plant.

"I didn't think nothing of it and then the sirens went off, which usually means someone got hurt," said GM employee Rhonda Colburn. "But when they told us to evacuate the building, we were all like something's going on."

Emergency crews say the explosion and subsequent chemical spill involved chlorine dioxide, which can be dangerous to the skin or if inhaled.

"Those are really the main precautions - eyes, skin, mucus membranes or inhalation," explained Marion Fire Chief Paul David.

GM says they received some conflicting reports as to what other chemicals may have been involved in the explosion. Nine employees were exposed after the blast and had to go through what's called gross decontamination.

"It's a rinsing of the skin to get product off that shouldn't normally be here and that was done here at the plant, then a more thorough decon, I believe upon transport to the hospital," David said.

As HAZMAT contained the spill inside, three workers declined treatment outside. Six others were rushed to Marion General Hospital.

Although five of them were eventually released with minor injuries, one worker died of his injuries an hour after the blast. The coroner identified that victim as 48-year-old Jim Gibson, a contract employee at the plant. Tuesday, the Chronicle-Tribune cited the Grant County coroner, who said Gibson died of blunt force trauma to his head due to multiple skull fractures.

His death is being ruled accidental.

GM's spokesperson, Stephanie Jentgen, told Eyewitness News Gibson works for Quaker Chemical and was a manager at the stamping plant.

Co-workers say, personally, he was a lot more.

"About once twice a week I'd see him," Colburn said. "He always had a smile on his face. He was a great guy."

"He loved to play guitar and his last name was Gibson so he was like, 'Remember me as Jim Gibson'. So I'll always remember that from him, great man," added GM employee Brian Gillespie.

"It's sad," Colburn said through tears. "Very sad. Broke my heart. He'll be missed."

Co-workers also say Gibson put safety first. It was something they saw in his actions and heard from him all the time.

"He was always preaching to us safety, so it's really very terrible and ironic that he would be involved in this situation," Gillespie said.

GM says the source of the explosion, the chemicals and welding water, which Gibson was working near, are being tested. Employees are being interviewed too, about what they saw and heard.

Crews also performed a "gross decontamination," rinsing off the skin of everyone who may have come into contact with the chlorine dioxide. If inhaled, the chemical can cause lung issues and can be an irritant to the skin and eyes.

"Gross decon is basically a rinsing of the skin to get product off that shouldn't normally be there and that was done here at the plant prior to transport. A more thorough decon I believe was done at Marion General Hospital when the patients entered there," said David.

GM sent its second shift workers home after Tuesday's explosion. They also canceled third shift Tuesday night. But first shift employees are scheduled to report to work Wednesday morning.

Jentgen says the air quality has been tested and deemed safe. The area around the explosion site has been cordoned off, as well, where investigators will focus their attention.

The plant employs about 1,600 workers. It provides blanks, stampings and sheet metal assembly for vehicles to GM assembly plants across North America.

Jentgen tells Eyewitness News every employee who handles chemicals at the plant goes through extensive training every year.

According to OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor, the plant has been fined twice for violations in the past ten years.

In October 2009, safety inspectors cited the plant for a violation classified as serious. The violation notice says parts of a welder were not guarded well enough to protect the operator from danger. The problem was corrected during the inspection, and officials proposed a $1,300 fine. General Motors reached a settlement and paid $845.

In October 2004, inspectors sited the plant for violation related to a crane. However, the state no longer has that paperwork, so the Department of Labor could not provide specific details. The initial penalty was $1,625, but GM settled the issue for $810.

Quaker Chemical Corp. released a statement Tuesday saying, "The safety of our associates, and those who work with them, is of paramount importance to us. We understand that GM has initiated an investigation, and we will work with GM and government agencies to understand what occurred."