On December 29 at around 1530 members of the Garfield Heights Fire Dept. responded to a reported structure fire at a magnesium processing plant. Upon arrival heavy smoke was showing. Company employees stated that 5 people were unaccounted for. They also informed that magnesium was involved in the fire. Firefighters under the command of Capt. Nemetz made a quick search and found that employees had exited building.
Chief Collova soon arrived and assumed command. Since magnesium explodes violently with water, the decision was made to take a defensive stand. Evacuations of the surrounding area were made. Throughout this incident, no attempts were made to get water on the burning magnesium. Heavy rain was a factor during the fire.
The next objective was to protect nearby buildings. Of main concern was a nearby warehouse loaded with tons of magnesium. It soon became apparent that this structure would be lost. Firefighters retreated and then concentrated efforts on saving a 100 x 300 foot building across the street from the warehouse. The magnesium in the warehouse then started to explode from the excessive heat. This building was lost when the magnesium started to erupt violently.
Unmanned master streams were placed to protect several trailers loaded with magnesium. While this was being accomplished, a trailer near the magnesium warehouse exploded. The force knocked firefighters to the ground and broke the windows out of an apartment building 2000 feet away.
Firefighters on the opposite side of the incident were using their aerial devices to protect huge dust filters loaded with magnesium powder. A 4" supply line had been laid down the dead-end street between the two initial exposure buildings. This line was lost when the buildings became involved in fire. A hydrant near the fire building gave enough water to keep a master stream from an aerial platform in service.
At around 0200 winds shifted 180 degrees. Extremely violent explosions started. Firefighters could not get near the hydrant to shut it down. They used an axe to cut their supply line. The truck company was then moved to a safe location. Firefighters immediately evacuated their position. Large pieces of molten steel could be seen flying 1000 feet into the air. A truck, ladder and engine were left behind. Another large exposure building was lost. This was a 100 year old, two story, recently renovated office building across the street from where the initial fire started.
Hundreds of explosions continued throughout the night. Eighteen fire departments responded. A total of 5 alarms were struck. The 4th alarm activated a regional communications center in Cleveland. Explosions described as thunder were heard miles away. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries. Three firefighters received minor injuries. Two were transported to a local hospital and soon released. No fire vehicles were lost. Several received minor damage. Hundreds of feet of supply line were damaged.