A Shut and Open Case

The Mesa Fire Department's September 26 shutdown of the explosion-riddled TRW air-bag manufacturing plant on East Germann Road ended almost as quickly as it began.

Just 48 hours after ordering the plant closed, fire officials announced that all was well, that a 15point plan for safety improvements had been hammered out with TRW.

Yet serious safety issues brought up in fire department reports have yet to be addressed. Insiders say a more comprehensive plan was supposed to have been put together, but immense political pressure was put on the city to get the plant open again, and quickly--pressure that took fire officials and Mesa Mayor Willie Wong by surprise, and forced them to hastily retreat from their tough stance.

The fire department issued its cease-and-desist order after the plant reported three explosions in one week--two on September 19 and another on September 22. Over the past year, the plant has been the scene of at least 17 explosions. A separate TRW plant in Mesa has experienced six explosions.

"We have been working with them for a long time, but we saw that the problem was getting really serious," says Fire Department Captain Cliff Puckett. "We needed to do something about it right away."

The order forced TRW to stop the grinding, mixing and pressing of sodium azide, the extremely explosive chemical that is used as the inflator propellant for air bags.

TRW played a big role in orchestrating vocal protests over the closure. TRW employees who mobbed a town-hall meeting--attended by Governor J. Fife Symington III--were paid by the company to be there. The crowd heckled Symington and eventually became so agitated that the governor had to be spirited out a back door and hustled away by police.

On-the-clock TRW employees also rallied outside the Mesa Fire Department station on First Street on September 27, carrying pro-TRW signs and angrily denouncing the city's actions.

A spokesman for TRW in Cleveland admits that employees were being paid as they appeared at the rallies, but insists the company did nothing to encourage them to go.

However, one employee says that not only did TRW pay and encourage its workers to protest the closing, the company provided the "TRW--We love this place" tee shirts many of them wore.

"They gave us those shirts and told us it would be good to wear them," says the worker, who asked not to be identified. "They said we should let the city know we were holding them accountable for throwing us out of work."

Puckett says he was surprised that employees would take offense at the fire department's efforts to ensure their safety. "I understand that they wanted to know where their paychecks were coming from, but we were trying to protect them," he says.

Wong reportedly received calls from U.S.Senator John McCain. Neither Symington's nor McCain's office returned calls from New Times.

There also were calls from TRW's customers. One city staffer says the phone started ringing as soon as the shutdown took effect, and didn't stop until the city announced that the plant could be reopened. The calls were from some of the world's biggest corporations.

"We got calls from Ford, Chrysler and [General Motors]," the staffer says. "They were really pissed. They wanted to know when they could expect the plant to open up again, because TRW didn't have a big enough inventory to keep them [auto plants] working. They asked if Mesa was the kind of place where the government screws around with businesses."

TRW manufactures passenger-side air-bag assemblies for every major auto manufacturer in the world except Hyundai and Honda. TRW has deals with some automakers which stipulate that the company will pay for auto-production slowdowns caused by a shortage of air bags. And automakers' demand for air bags has skyrocketed in recent years.

Mesa fire officials say one reason explosions have become more frequent at the plant may be the dramatic increases in production. In 1993, the company produced 4.6million air-bag units. In 1994, that number more than doubled, to 9.5 million. Production for 1995 is expected to exceed 13million.

"We have asked them whether they think their production is moving a little faster than it should be," Puckett says.

Company officials deny that increased production is the problem.
Whatever the reasons for the blasts, fire department investigative reports from some recent incidents reveal chilling TRW slip-ups and mishaps that could have led to more damage and severe injury.

One report says that TRW employees told firefighters that whenever a blast occurs at the plant, the telephone system shuts down so no one can call for emergency personnel. Calls to firefighters are supposed to come from a designated employee at the plant as soon as possible after an explosion. Some incident and investigative reports show, however, that on several occasions the fire department was not notified until hours after a blast. And on one occasion, firefighters responding to a call from the plant were detained at the gate for eight minutes while a security guard tried to get authorization to allow them to enter.

The reports show that fire personnel have also found improper storage of chemicals and partially blocked doorways and corridors, and workers in dangerous areas without proper protective clothing.

Puckett says these issues have been discussed with TRW management and fixes are being formulated for them. None of these problems or solutions, however, appears on the 15-point deal struck between TRW and the city.