A Forgotten Community Searches for Answers After the Devastating Yenkin-Majestic Fire
What responsibility does a 100-year-old chemical manufacturer with repeated federal safety violations have to its neighbors? And is rebuilding trust even possible?
Diana Debro’s head had just hit her pillow a few minutes after midnight on April 8, 2021, when she heard a boom and felt her whole house shift, like a giant hand had shoved her Wildwood Avenue home. Debro jumped out of bed. “A plane fell!” she yelled to her daughter.
Just up the road, on Bethesda Avenue, Alfonso Hooper and his wife wandered out onto the darkened street, convinced a bomb had exploded somewhere in the community they’ve called home for more than 50 years. Further south, Ron Bryant was on his living room couch watching SportsCenter on ESPN when he felt his entire Brentnell Avenue home shake. Instinctively, he bolted to the other side of the room, thinking a driver had crashed into his house after losing control of the vehicle—a nagging fear he had carried for 30 years.
Bryant recovered and ran outside in time to see a fireball light up the night sky near Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp., a century-old, family-run manufacturer of paint, resin and other coatings. He hopped in his car and got to the Leonard Avenue plant before multiple fire trucks arrived. Flames engulfed an area around a large white tank labeled OPC Polymers. Black smoke formed a cloud that began drifting northeast.
Next door to Yenkin-Majestic, painter Gaye Reissland had been assembling some recently purchased shelves in the brick Millworks building, which provides studio space to dozens of local artists, when art supplies started to fall around her, ripping two of her paintings. Opening the door to the hallway, she peered through the dust and saw lights hanging from wires. She and another tenant hurried to their cars, stealing glances at the flames next door while glass crunched like fallen leaves underfoot.
“It was the scariest moment of my entire life,” Reissland says. “I’m still skittish from it.”
The explosion could be heard and felt from miles away, leading to dozens of 911 calls from panicked residents who live in the Columbus neighborhoods near Yenkin-Majestic on the Northeast Side. “I just heard a big bang against the side of my house. I don’t know if someone is trying to get in. I don’t want to open my doors,” one woman told the dispatcher. “My whole bed shook. … It moved my house,” said a different caller. Another dispatcher couldn’t believe the explosion rattled the windows of someone living a mile-and-a-half from the blast site: “You heard that all the way from up there? Wow.”
The violent, harrowing scene inside Yenkin-Majestic’s facility was the stuff of nightmares. Twenty-one employees clocked in at 7 p.m. on April 7 to work a shift that would take them into the next day. In a building that manufactures paint resin, flammable vapors escaped from a 3,000-gallon kettle, igniting and causing a series of explosions and a multiple-alarm fire that burned for about 12 hours. The kettle spewed a 400-degree resin mixture on employees’ arms, legs and faces, causing severe burns and scarring. The fire department report describes Yenkin-Majestic’s lead kettle operator rushing to the aid of a co-worker who was “screaming with resin all over his body.” The explosion knocked employees to the ground, causing concussions, ear bleeds and broken bones. Doctors amputated one worker’s left leg below the knee. In court documents, former employees say they continue to experience PTSD symptoms: night terrors, insomnia, flashbacks.
After arriving on the scene, Columbus Division of Fire personnel determined three Yenkin-Majestic employees were still trapped inside the building; rescue operations successfully retrieved two of them. “It was kind of like they were involved in a car accident. We had to use special tools to pry them out,” the battalion chief said at the time. Parts of the building collapsed on Wendell Light, the supervisor on duty and a Yenkin-Majestic employee of seven years, who was found dead hours later. Three workers required extended hospital stays. Yenkin-Majestic told the Ohio EPA that as many as 22 different materials, including mineral spirits, ethanol, glycerin, oils, alkyd resin solution and multiple acids, were potentially involved in the incident.
Before long, though, TV news footage of the giant fireball began to fade from memory, and the rest of the city seemed to move on from the ordeal. A few months after the blast, president and CEO Andrew O. Smith promised his company would “fix anything we have damaged that can be fixed.” But Debro, Bryant and other residents in the majority-Black community near Yenkin-Majestic haven’t been compensated for property damage they attribute to the explosion. They also have questions about the chemical fire’s potential environmental impacts on the area’s air, water and soil, and they’re concerned for the health of their neighbors, particularly older residents, many of whom remember Yenkin-Majestic accidents from previous decades.
“Here we are, a year-and-a-half later, still begging for justice,” says North Central Area Commissioner Sean Ruffin. “It doesn’t appear that our community is a priority. It’s forgotten.”
In 1906, Jacob Yenkin emigrated from Russia to the United States on the SS Majestic, initially settling in Logan, Ohio, where his family worked in the fur and hide trade. By 1920, the Yenkins had moved to Columbus and set up their business on Sandusky Street next to Charles Frey, who owned a paint shop. With sons Abe, Ben and Fred, Jacob Yenkin partnered with his neighbor to form the Frey-Yenkin Paint Co., later buying out Frey and making paints under the brand name Majestic in honor of the ship that brought its founder here. The company continued to grow, incorporating in 1948 and moving to its current site at 1920 Leonard Ave. in 1954.
For more than 100 years, the company has remained in the Yenkin family—a politically connected lineage that has been active in Columbus’ Jewish community for generations. Abe’s oldest son, Bernard Yenkin, joined the firm in 1954 and became company chairman. Leslie Yenkin, the oldest daughter of Bernard and Miriam (Schottenstein) Yenkin (the former Jewish Federation of Columbus president), married Jonathan Petuchowski, principal of First Majestic Asset Management and signatory on various Yenkin-Majestic real estate affiliates.
Since 2019, Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp. has been led by Andrew O. Smith, a native of Bath, Maine, who married Lavea Brachman, the daughter of previous Yenkin-Majestic CEO Merom Brachman and Judith (Yenkin) Brachman, the daughter of Fred Yenkin. Smith is also treasurer of the Buckeye Institute, a Libertarian-leaning Columbus think tank, and in 2013 he published the book “Sand in the Gears: How Public Policy Has Crippled American Manufacturing.” In a 2020 Columbus Dispatch editorial, Smith argued that the courts have been corrupted by a legal system in which “trial lawyers and special-interest groups extort huge payouts and regulate manufacturing through litigation.” (Smith and others at Yenkin-Majestic did not respond to requests for comment.)
Yenkin-Majestic’s accident history goes back nearly as far as the company itself. In 1930, The Dispatch reported that Jacob Yenkin was “burned painfully about the face and arms” when a 1,200-gallon tank of paint exploded. Longtime neighbors can still recall when a resin tank blew up in 1979, injuring three workers and destroying a brick building; a year later, a resin tanker truck caught fire. (Yenkin-Majestic is not a union facility; employees voted against union representation in 1994.)
In the last dozen years, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited and fined the corporation multiple times. In 2011, an employee was electrocuted while plugging in a forklift and later died. In 2012, OSHA proposed $138,600 in fines for 26 health violations after the facility released a flammable vapor cloud. (The company contested the fines and later paid around $76,000.) Of the 26 violations, OSHA categorized 25 as “serious,” meaning there was “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.” OSHA fined the company for another serious violation in 2015.
Multiple agencies investigated the April 2021 explosion, including OSHA, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the Columbus Division of Fire. The Chemical Safety Board report isn’t expected until the second half of 2023, but the fire department determined the explosion to be accidental, with “no evidence of criminal activity.” The resin plant has six reactor vessels that are two stories high and can produce batches in about 12 hours. The proprietary mix of chemicals is heated to over 400 degrees by furnaces underneath the vessels, each of which has a manway with a cover, handle and sight glass that lets the operator view the batch. The Fire and Explosives Investigation Unit found that the manway on kettle three failed and allowed flammable vapors to escape. The department’s report estimated Yenkin-Majestic’s financial loss at $50 million.
OSHA’s investigation determined not only the cause of the fire, but also whether it could have been prevented if certain procedures and processes were followed. The federal agency’s October 2021 report is damning. OSHA cited Yenkin-Majestic for two willful and 33 serious safety violations, noting the company made alterations to a reactor vessel and manway opening in late 2020 and early 2021 but didn’t ensure the kettle maintained its pressure-containing ability. So when the batch in kettle three overheated just after midnight on April 8, 2021, the over-pressurized contents looked for the path of least resistance. Instead of finding that path in a safety guard system, the flammable vapor escaped through the manway cover and gasket, then flowed throughout the plant, easily finding an ignition source (remember those furnaces under the reactor vessels?) and causing the initial explosion.
“Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp. could have prevented this terrible tragedy if they had followed industry standards and removed a compromised kettle from service,” acting OSHA regional administrator William Donovan said in a statement issued six months after the fire. OSHA proposed $709,960 in fines and placed Yenkin-Majestic in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The company is contesting the penalties, and as of late October 2022, the case was still in litigation.
Injured former employees and the family of Wendell Light brought personal injury suits against Yenkin-Majestic. In June, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas consolidated them into one case, which is scheduled for trial next year. (Attorneys did not make former employees available for comment; Light’s family also declined to comment.)
“The manufacturing industry is full of people who care deeply about the communities where we live and work,” Smith wrote in his 2020 Dispatch editorial. “I have never met a chemical industry executive who cares less about the environment or their fellow employees than the most ardent social activist.”
Tiffany White is the longtime chair of the North Central Area Commission, which includes neighborhoods like Shepard, Amer Crest (formerly American Addition), Brittany Hills, Brentnell and a few others. She lives behind Yenkin-Majestic in Oriole Heights, the same neighborhood where she was raised. White inherited her grandmother’s home, across the street from her former garbage man. “It’s an older community,” she says.
As a kid, White remembers her grandma threatening to drop her in American Addition when she got in trouble. “I was like, ‘What are those things outside their houses? Oh, those are outhouses.’ They didn’t even have running water,” she says. White also recalls the plumes of smoke coming from the former ASARCO plant on Windsor Avenue, which manufactured zinc oxide from 1920 to 1986 and produced zinc slag that drained through a series of ditches into what could have been the crown jewel of the neighborhood, Alum Creek.
It seemed like her African American community was neglected and overlooked—a feeling that White and Ruffin say the recent explosion only amplified. “There’s a concern about environmental justice, because there’s a lot of industry right here. Are we not as important as other neighborhoods because of our demographic?” Ruffin says. Put another way: If something exploded 10 minutes away in Clintonville, would that community still be clamoring for justice?
After the 2021 explosion, White mingled on the street with neighbors until around 3 a.m. In the days and weeks after the blast, people began to talk to White and each other about damage to their homes. Diana Debro noticed new foundation cracks on her back porch and inside the garage. Three of Ron Bryant’s windows were dislodged. His neighbor, Toni Smith, discovered her kitchen cabinets were pulling away from the wall, and her neighbor’s cabinets began to do the same thing.
The explosion also blew out windows at the Millworks building next door to Yenkin-Majestic, and the fire destroyed everything in a large storage room, including artist Julie Byrne’s two kilns and, most tragically, more than 50 artworks by world-renowned sculpture artist David Black. His son, Eric Black, says the fire wiped out over half of the sculptor’s personal collection, turning large pieces of aluminum into puddles on the ground and ruining decades of work. (Byrne says she was compensated for half the value of her kilns; the Black family has not yet filed for the loss.)
Scott and Sandi Mowrey, who owned the Millworks building at the time of the fire and had a good relationship with Yenkin-Majestic, compiled a list of 22 tenants who tallied damages ranging from $87 to $17,700—about $100,000 in all, not including Black’s sculptures. “If I could change one thing, I would have saved David Black’s work,” says Scott Mowrey. “You could argue that he lost a million dollars in artwork.” The Millworks building also houses Little Gems Learning Place, whose owner, Samantha Carter, says she used to smell fumes on the child-care business’ outdoor playground, though less so since the fire. After the explosion, some families never returned.
Following the blast, White, Ruffin and others on the area commission—a group of elected residents who can make nonbinding, advisory recommendations to the city—began to strategize, though it took time to communicate effectively with the neighborhood. “It’s difficult, because you have a portion of the community who may have been affected, but who suffer from the digital divide,” Ruffin says.
In August 2021, Yenkin-Majestic CEO Smith and a local firm, RAMA Consulting, met with community members at the Destiny Center on Old Leonard Avenue, though residents had to wait until all media outlets left, since Smith said he wouldn’t meet with cameras present. Eventually, the CEO read from a prepared statement and answered questions.
Smith apologized for the fear caused by the explosion, referencing the sound wave that shook buildings, broke windows and damaged property off-site. But White says the relationship between Yenkin-Majestic and the surrounding community has been “nonexistent” for years, and several community members described the meeting as contentious and hostile. “Yenkin-Majestic was very defensive,” says Toni Smith, a resident of the Shepard neighborhood. “I expected them to be better prepared and suited to address this kind of issue, because it’s not the first time it’s happened. … They felt very put upon when we were, in fact, the victims.”
Yenkin-Majestic leadership did not respond to emails or answer specific questions for this story; rather, in late October, RAMA emailed a short statement from the company. “We have worked hard to recover our business that was severely impacted by the accident,” the statement read, in part. “We have also constructively engaged with numerous local groups and representatives from our neighborhood. Along with our advisers, RAMA Consulting, we continue to facilitate dialogue between Yenkin-Majestic and the surrounding community.”
Yenkin-Majestic did not indicate how many claims made through its insurance company, CNA, were approved, but nearby residents like Bryant, Debro, Toni Smith and others were denied compensation. In a letter to Debro in September 2021, CNA said the foundation issues she raised were “related to prior, longstanding structural and maintenance problems.” Debro has owned her home since 1974 and says she has made consistent improvements over the years, installing new windows and siding and replacing the driveway three times. “I know this house like the wrinkles in my hand,” Debro says. “They tried to say that it was old, and it’s normal. It’s not normal.”
Wanda Dillard, Debro’s Wildwood Avenue neighbor, received a similar denial letter. She says many in the community are also reluctant to make insurance claims. “Most people have an average of $1,000 deductible. Who has that type of money? I’m a retired person,” Dillard says.
In addition to claims of structural damage, some who live near Yenkin-Majestic have concerns about potential environmental hazards from the blast. The morning after the fire, “you could see folks had soot on their roofs,” White says. “Then it rained, so everything’s going down our gutters and into our storm water. … What did that do to our water table? What did it do to our soil?”
The Ohio EPA’s initial pollution incident report noted that firefighting foam had entered Alum Creek, but in an April 21, 2021, letter to EPA director Laurie Stevenson, Yenkin-Majestic’s vice president of operations and manufacturing, Spencer Miniely, wrote that “we are not aware of a release causing hazard to human health or the environment at this time.” And in the August community meeting, Yenkin-Majestic’s Smith said that all the waste generated from the fire was handled properly, and that the company installed air monitoring equipment at the facility’s perimeter shortly after the accident, which were negative for emissions. “Immediately after the fire, there were no emissions into the surrounding community,” Smith said then.
Not everyone in the surrounding area is convinced. “They didn’t have monitors on Woodward. They didn’t have a monitor on Nelson and 670. They didn’t have a monitor on Joyce and Windsor,” White says. Some neighbors complained of burning eyes and throat after the blast, which added to already present concerns about emissions.
Ohio State University’s Kerry Ard, an associate professor of environmental sociology, has studied the way industrial toxics are disproportionately found in minority communities. In 2021, she co-authored an article that examined the relationship between racialized poverty segregation and hazardous industrial facilities over time. “Evaluations of these industrial facilities are less likely to happen in areas where there’s a larger percentage of nonwhites and lower-income [residents],” Ard says. “Segregation is really at the heart of it.”
With homes and industry in such proximity, some in the North Central community don’t believe it’s possible for a company like Yenkin-Majestic to be a good neighbor, because the mere presence of a chemical coatings manufacturer negates that possibility. “They really need to take the whole plant and move it. You’ve been here 100 years, so you’ve made enough money to move out of the neighborhood,” Debro says. “If it ever explodes again, the whole neighborhood could go.”
But residents aren’t of one mind on the issue. White and others want a more collaborative relationship with Yenkin-Majestic moving forward. “I think businesses and communities sometimes don’t work together the way they should,” she says. “I don’t want to close their doors. … But I also believe that when you have businesses in the middle of neighborhoods, you need to try to be the best steward possible.”
Yenkin-Majestic is by no means the only industrial entity in the North Central area. Before the April 2021 explosion, Debro thought the fumes she smelled at night were coming from Plaskolite on Joyce Avenue. Other nearby facilities include: United Alloys & Metals, also on Joyce Avenue; Burton Metal Finishing & Powder Coating on Woodland Avenue; Jet Container Co. on Brentnell Avenue; and multiple scrap metal and recycling facilities. Not to mention the old zinc oxide plant, ASARCO.
For months, Columbus City Council has been working to create a request for proposals for an air quality study of the North Central community, which the area commission has been pushing for since the blast. According to council spokesperson Nya Hairston, the RFP is still in draft form, and council has not voted on it yet. They’re hoping to issue a finalized RFP in January—four months shy of the explosion’s two-year anniversary.
While Columbus Monthly reported this story, Yenkin-Majestic seemed to ramp up its community outreach. In September, CFO Beth Patton contacted residents about a property reinspection program for those who live within a half-mile of Yenkin-Majestic and previously received a denial from CNA. And on Oct. 25, three days after Columbus Monthly reached out to RAMA about this story, the consultant emailed White about setting up a “community benefit fund” for the surrounding neighborhood.
Corporate changes are also afoot at Yenkin-Majestic. At the time of the fire, the Columbus company had three divisions: Majic Paints, which manufactures a line of consumer finishes, including oil-based, acrylic and latex paints, along with specialty products; YM Industrial Coatings, which produces customized manufacturer coatings; and OPC Polymers, which makes resins for paint and coatings markets. In March, True Value Co. announced the acquisition of the Majic division. The transaction “allows us to focus our resources and reinvest in our polymers business,” Smith said in a press release.
Then, in May, Pennsylvania manufacturer Jamestown Coating Technologies announced the acquisition of YM Industrial, which leaves only the OPC Polymers division in Yenkin-Majestic’s hands.
In the meantime, former Yenkin-Majestic employees who were injured in the blast, along with the family of Wendell Light, are waiting for their day in court. And North Central residents like White, Ruffin, Bryant and Debro continue to push for environmental studies and compensation for structural damages. “The way they can make it right is to repair everybody’s homes,” Bryant says.
Others who live near Yenkin-Majestic have accepted their plight. To them, any attempts at corporate accountability seem far-fetched. “The first thing to come out of people’s mouths is, ‘They’re not gonna do nothing,’ because that’s what they’re used to,” says Debro, who went on to quote her neighbor. “She said, ‘I’m done running around, trying to find out where the meetings are. You go ahead; I’m done. They’ve got the money, and it’s a Black community. And that’s it.’”
This story is from the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.