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Two people injured, more than 100 evacuated after fire and explosions in Eaton County

Eaton Rapids Fire Chief Roger McNutt says officials are waiting for the fire to burn out because they can't use water to fight the fire because of magnesium. He said the fire is contained but asks that people avoid the immediate area.
This photo taken from a drone shows the damage at Meridian Magnesium Products in Eaton Rapids from a fire that began early Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of Brad Hendrickson)

EATON RAPIDS - Two people were injured and more than 100 workers were evacuated from an auto parts plant early Wednesday after a fire and a series of explosions.

The fire at Meridian Magnesium Products of America, 2001 Industrial Drive on M-99 in the northern portion of the city is still burning, Eaton Rapids Mayor Paul Malewski said this morning.

He said the roof of the plant, which was built in 1993, was blown off. He added that no homes have been evacuated and that the smoke is dissipating because of strong winds.

Eaton Rapids Fire Chief Roger McNutt says officials are waiting for the fire to burn out because they can’t use water to fight the fire because of magnesium. He said the fire is contained but asks that people avoid the immediate area.

The incident began about 1:30 a.m. with a fire and a subsequent explosion while workers were changing shifts, Malewski said. Eaton Rapids and Eaton Rapids township fire departments, Eaton Rapids police and Eaton County Sheriff's Office personnel all responded.

McNutt said his department was on the scene shortly after the fire was called in. He said firefighters worked with plant staff, and “drew up a plan” for handling the blaze after they arrived.

The initial explosion set off a series of additional explosions, Malewski said.

As many as 150 workers were evacuated. Two people suffered minor injuries and were treated and released from Eaton Rapids Medical Center.

"Fortunately there is no loss of life or serious injury," Malewski said.

Roger Pease said his son was one of the two employees injured during the fire. He did not release his son's name.

“The first explosion knocked him down and the second one blew him through the doors outside,” Pease said.

Joy Ketchum’s family lives just 400 yards from the plant, near Smith Road and M-99.

Wednesday morning the noise from the first explosion there "shook" her awake.

"It was unbelievable," Ketchum said. "I’ve never experienced anything like it before."

Ketchum said she and her husband went outside and saw a large, black plume of smoke coming up from Meridian Magnesium. Then they heard a second explosion.

"I was just amazed when I saw what had happened to it," Ketchum said.

Brad Hendrickson, who lives a half mile away from the plant on Canal Street, was just getting home from his shift at Alro Steel when he heard the first explosion.

"It rattled the windows and the whole nine yards," he said.

After hearing the second explosion, he went outside and said there were visible flames coming from Meridian Magnesium. He sent his drone out to take photos and videos. By 5 a.m., he said the scene was "calm."

Malewski said Meridian Magnesium is the largest employer in the city, with approximately 450 employees.

The damage to the plant is extensive and he said it will likely “put people out of work for a while.”

“It will definitely have an impact on our community and it will have a ripple effect because a lot of the people who work there live in nearby communities,” he said. “I’m hoping that their long-term plan is to repair the building and move forward with production. They’re in crisis mode still, assessing the damage.”

Incoming Eaton Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Chelsie Swaynie said news of the fire has been “devastating.”

Nearly everyone in Eaton Rapids knows someone who worked at the plant, Swaynie said. She knows several people employed there and said when she first heard about the fire her first thought was immediate.

“It’s ‘Is everyone okay?’” Swaynie said. “Your second thought is, ‘Who is working that shift?’ It doesn’t just affect employees. It affects the entire community.”

An employee who answered the phone at the corporate office in Plymouth Wednesday morning declined to identify herself and said the company has no comment at this time.

Ketchum said the couple had concerns about living so close to the plant when they bought their home 14 years ago.

She said other than a smaller fire March 31 that she said involved a semi-trailer, there were never any significant incidents at the property.

"This was the first major thing that’s ever happened," she said.

“Everybody’s safe and that’s the main thing I guess but still, life changing, you know?” Pease said.