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Explosion in Shipping Container Serves as Safety Reminder

Explosion in Shipping Container Serves as Safety Reminder

Ferndale, MI – Homes and businesses near 8 Mile and Livernois in Ferndale shook as the thunderous sound of an explosion inside a shipping container pierced the otherwise quiet evening of Jan. 2, 2021.

The explosion had enough force to buckle out the walls and roof of the 4,000 lb, thick-steel-walled container, leaving it with a ballooned out appearance. The force also blew out windows of Olive Labs, a laboratory currently specializing in COVID-19 testing.

The container was one of several placed on the site without the owner having gotten a permit.  And the cause of the explosion was because a contracted worker had set up a propane space heater in the enclosed space to help dry glue on insulation panels he was adding to the inside walls.

“It was not a good decision,” said Ferndale Fire Marshall Dennis Barr who was tasked with investigating the explosion.  “First off, you shouldn’t use propane space heaters in enclosed spaces, and you should never leave space heaters unattended,” he said.

Barr said there are three possibilities of what happened.

There could have been a leak that allowed propane to seep out into the container truck, which eventually ignited due to the fire of the space heater.  There could have been a buildup of carbon monoxide that ignited.  Or it’s possible that the glue being used on the insulation was creating the combustible fumes.

“We probably won’t know the specific cause, but we do know that it was an accident,” Barr said.

Even as the force changed the shape of the steel, the explosion didn’t even disturb the heater itself.

“It was still working, still on when we got there,” Barr said.

Beyond the container, the windows, and the insulation, nothing was damaged.  Dr. Heather Heine, the owner of Olive Labs, told Oakland County that she’s expecting a shipment of supplies and that the containers are only temporary.

“We are in the process of moving the containers to another site within the next 30 days,” she said.  “They were only intended as a temporary stop gap so the FEMA items we received (volumes which we couldn’t predict) had a safe home beside us…  In co-ordination with the city, it appears another business owner nearby in an industrial zone has kindly offered to house them for us in the short term so we can still get access to the collection supplies.   We continue to be grateful for all the folks continuing to help out during this challenging time.”

Heine has operated her testing facility in Ferndale for the last three years, focusing on environmental testing such as for PFAS.  She shifted her focus when the pandemic hit, and set up the 150 Livernois location for COVID-19 testing.

“In March, when I heard Governor Whitmer ask anyone with medical skills to assist the state during this time of crisis, I responded to that call, and retooled our efforts to establish COVID-19 testing at Olive Labs.  We received federal certification to offer COVID-19 virus and antibody testing, providing the highest standard FDA-authorized procedures.  We pride ourselves on our 24-hour testing response time, which we feel is key in limiting the spread of this virus and keeping our community safe,” Heine said.  “As COVID-19 continues, there are so many essential branches of our community working hard together, and we are proud to be part of that effort. We stand with Ferndale and the State of Michigan, committed to doing everything we can to support people through this challenging time.”

The explosion prompted speculation on social media, and Dr. Heine hopes neighbors will accept her apology.  “I’d like to convey our gratitude to the Ferndale firefighters and police for their rapid assistance. We would also like to apologize to the community for this disturbance,” she said.

The City of Ferndale is working with Heine to address the shipping containers, and she assures the public that nothing flammable or explosive will be stored there.

For the Fire Department this is an example to serve as a warning about the dangers of heaters in enclosed spaces of any kind.

Barr explained that heating units have been a hot topic in his profession as municipalities and restaurants tackle the challenge of patio and igloo seating for restaurants.  He also hears periodically of explosions that could have been prevented – in places like enclosed rooms, tents, garages, ice fishing shanties, vehicles, etc.  In Ferndale all restaurant patio seating areas have been inspected and set up to prevent such accidents, but those doing things on their own may not be aware of the danger.

He hopes this explosion will remind people to never leave space heaters unattended, and make sure that gas heaters have plenty of ventilation.

Learn more about Olive Labs at https://www.olivelabs.us/.

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