Fire spreads through AAM Metal Forming plant in Malvern

The AAM Metal forming plant in Malvern, formerly known as Colfor, erupts into flames. (Photo submitted by Hunter Moore)

By Jordan Miller

MALVERN – The American Axle and Manufacturing (AAM) Metal Forming plant located in Malvern, formerly known as Colfor, caught fire early Tuesday morning on Sept. 22.

Great Trail Fire Department chief Ralph Castellucci said his department was toned out just after 5 a.m.

Castellucci said the dispatch call said a hydraulic press exploded and the hydraulic oil ignited a fire which spread high and through the building.

“The press was on fire and we responded to that,” he said. “All of the hydraulic oil started burning rapidly and burned across the building…when we got here multiple presses had caught on fire.”

The fire reached the top of the building structure – flames and smoke could be seen from miles away.

“Those presses go clear to the ceiling and they all have high pressure hydraulic oil in them,” said Castellucci.

The factory has been a staple to the community, employing family providers for decades, Castelluci said he understands the importance of trying to save what they can.

“It’s going to have an effect. As soon as we got here, we started doing operations to save as much as we could,” he said. “Getting all of those departments here was important. That impact is on our mind and that’s why we plan for this. This is a plan for the worst case right here.”

Areas at both ends of the facility did not receive much damage, according to the fire chief, but a heavy amount of damage occurred in the center structure of the building.

Water was hauled in from surrounding villages to help fight the fire because the high use of water.

He says in addition to the Great Trail Fire Department between 15-18 departments from Carroll, Stark, Mahoning and Columbiana counties responded to the scene.

“As of right now, everyone is safe,” he said as he answered a question about injuries. “We have been fighting this from the outside and we’re about to move inside.”

Don Artzner, a long-time employee at AAM, was preparing for his day shift to begin when the fire erupted.

“It’s a second home to me,” he said, choked up, as he was ready to celebrate 47 years at the plant on Sept. 24.

“At first I had seen a couple cop cars and didn’t know what was going on,” Artzner said. “I just happened to glance up a little bit and I saw an orange glow. I said, ‘this is not going to be good.’”

This is the second time in 2020, AAM employees will be out of work at no fault of their own, first because of COVID-19 and now because of the devasting fire at the facility.

“It’s going to hurt, not only my family, but there’s a lot of people that work here. A lot of manufacturing places are going to be hurting,” Artzner said.

Set to retire in March of 2021 after 47 years of work at the plant, he says calling his family was the hardest part.

“I had mixed emotions. Like I said, this place is like a second home to me,” Artzner noted. “I’ve been coming here quite a few years. I was just out of high school. I graduated and then I got the job.”

He’s happy everyone made it out of the building.

“I’m just glad everyone got out safe,” Artzner said. “We’ll move on, hopefully.”

AAM released the following statement regarding the fire:

“In the early morning of Sept. 22, AAM’s Malvern Manufacturing Facility experienced a significant fire. The building was evacuated, and no injuries were reported. Local fire departments responded to the scene to contain the fire. AAM is working with local authorities to investigate this accident and will assess the facility once the investigation is complete. Because of the ongoing investigation, we have no further comment.”

Andrea Knapp, media relations leader for AAM, told the Free Press Standard the facility employs 276 hourly and salary associates.