Biggest Industrial Fire in History

I was there


1953 Hydramatic Fire
Livonia, Michigan

I was there...

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The biggest industrial fire in history took place in a General Motors plant on August 12, 1953 - a fifty million dollar loss. I was working there at that time. This was the Hydramatic plant on Plymouth Road, in Livonia, Michigan. Ternstedt Division, for whom I was working, was using the eastern portion of the building for two government contracts - one contract was for a state-of-the-art guidance system, for the U.S. Air Force; and the other contract was for a range finder system to be used on Army tanks.

One afternoon, numerous alarm signals sounded. The story was that an oily rag had been accidentally ignited by a welder's torch and was caught on a parts conveyor line, thus carrying the flame down the line and igniting other materials as it traveled. Six people died in the fire: three members of the Ternstedt in-plant fire brigade were trapped and killed and a member of the Livonia Fire Department suffered a fatal heart attack. Several days later, two construction workers were electrocuted while clearing debris. The plant building was completely destroyed.

This August 12th fire left the corporation and the three divisions that used this transmission plant scrambling for other sources of automatic transmissions to complete that year's model year production. As a result, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, during the downtime, were assembled with Buick's Dynaflow transmission, while Pontiacs used Chevrolet's Powerglide, both two-speed torque-converter units. Non-GM makes, that bought Hydramatics from the corporation, ended up looking for other sources of automatic transmissions during the downtime.

About nine weeks after the Livonia fire, GM opened up a new source for Hydramatic production at Willow Run, Michigan. GM obtained the giant World War II bomber plant at Willow Run from Kaiser-Frazer and completely revamped it for Hydra-Matic production. This is not the Willow Run Auto Assembly Plant, which was built right outside the Willow Run Transmission Plant.

By the time the 1954 models debuted in late 1953, Hydramatic production had returned to normal levels and all '54 model Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs with automatic transmissions were once again equipped with Hydramatics.

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