Update on Philips explosion

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The first thing I did was to see if the seven year old was home. Thank God...she was out of school just before they locked the kids down. These sorts of incidents seem irrelevant unless you're onsite. This is the second time since roll-over I've been on "shelter in place"status. Safety issues addressed in same Chronicle issue.

fair use etc March 27, 2000, 10:53PM

Phillips plant blast kills 1, injures 71 Investigators seek cause of inferno By RUTH RENDON Copyright 2000 Houston Chronicle

An explosion and fire ripped through a section of the Phillips Petroleum Co. plant in Pasadena on Monday, killing one worker, injuring at least 71 others and shutting the complex down.

Plant explosion coverage video by KHOU Channel 11

At least three of the injured were listed in critical condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital, and six were listed in serious condition. Officials there and at other hospitals that received victims said the injuries included burns, cuts from flying fragments of debris, and injuries from falls.

Huge flames erupted after the 1:22 p.m. blast, sending a massive column of black smoke upward and spurring area school officials to seal their buildings and keep children inside as a precaution against the possibility of toxic fumes. The fire finally was extinguished shortly before 5 p.m., and Phillips officials said their monitors found no sign that anyone outside the plant was exposed to toxic chemicals.

The body of the dead worker was recovered Monday evening. His name was not released.

The cause of the blast -- the fourth at the plant in the past 12 months -- had not been determined.

"That's being looked into at this time," said Kevin Collins, a plant manager who was in charge of emergency response Monday. "Our efforts right now are focused on making the remainder of the plant safe and ensuring the other employees and other operating units are in a safe condition."

He said all other plants in the Phillips complex are believed to be in safe condition but were shut down as a precaution.

"No equipment will be restarted until we know it's safe," Collins said, adding that he has no idea why the facility has had so many serious accidents in the past year.

The K-Resin section is where an explosion killed two workers and injured four others in June 1999, but Phillips officials said Monday that they did not know whether both explosions involved the same reactor. That section contains four reactors.

"We are very closely monitoring this event from a remote location," said Ray Skinner of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "As soon as it's safe to enter, we will."

The Phillips complex also had explosions in April 1999, when a rail car containing polypropylene blew up, and in August, when there was an explosion in the polypropylene section of the plant.

The complex also was the site of a devastating explosion in October 1989, when 23 workers were killed and about 130 were injured.

J.J. Roberts, an employee of subcontractor H.B. Zachry, said she was working in a warehouse at the plant Monday and saw a fireball that was at least one city block wide.

"I didn't know if we should go or what," she said. "When I saw my boss running, I ran."

About 850 Phillips employees and about 100 subcontractors work at the complex. Officials said about 600 workers were on duty when the blast happened.

Of those injured, 32 are Phillips employees and 39 are contract workers, the company said.

"I was in the main shop talking to a guy, and all of a sudden there was a loud boom," said Tim Williams, a Phillips employee. "It hurt my ears. There was stuff in the air, and we just took off running."

He said he ran toward gates and got into a car driven by a co-worker. They put some distance between themselves and the fire, stopping at the Phillips credit union at Texas 225 and Berle.

Alarms sounded in the plant, but the city of Pasadena's siren system didn't alert residents until about 1:45 p.m., Mayor Johnny Isbell said. He said the system had been undergoing repairs because the sirens recently had been sounding when they were not supposed to.

As a precaution, 23 campuses in the Pasadena school district and eight schools in the Galena Park district followed "shelter in place" procedures, turning off their air conditioning and closing doors and windows.

The all-clear for the schools and area homes was sounded about 3:25 p.m.

Cynthia Simpson, environmental director for the plant, said styrene, butadiene and cyclohexane were being burned in the fire. She said the chemicals could irritate the eyes, nose and throat if inhaled in high concentrations, but air monitors indicated that the fire consumed the chemicals.

Pasadena school buses, meanwhile, were used to help evacuate employees and take them to the credit union, where supervisors conducted a head count. They were taken back to the plant about 4 p.m. to get their vehicles.

Twelve patients were treated at the East Houston Regional Medical Center, at 13111 Interstate 10 East. A hospital official said none of the 12 was expected to be kept overnight.

They were treated for a variety of injuries, including smoke inhalation and scrapes and bruises.

Thirteen victims went to Memorial Hermann Hospital and at least three remained in critical condition late Monday, a hospital spokesman said. Six were listed in serious condition and four in good condition.

The nine victims who were taken to Ben Taub General Hospital were in fair to good condition, a hospital spokesman said.

At least 14 of the patients suffered a range of first-, second- and third-degree burns, hospital officials said. Dr. Brent King, chief of Memorial Hermann's emergency room, described the injuries as "flash burns."

Other workers were injured when they fell from heights up to 30 feet.

One man was hurt when he fell 10 feet as he scrambled over a fence to escape, said Life Flight helicopter paramedic Judi Meyn.

"Sheer adrenaline put him over that fence," Meyn said.

She said the man's co-workers picked him up and continued running. Paramedics then picked him up a half-mile from the plant.

At Ben Taub, surgeons operated on a man who had been hit in the abdomen by flying debris. Hospital spokesman John Martinez said the injuries were not life-threatening.

"You hate to have crises in the city, but when you do, it's nice to know everybody works together," said Ben Taub chief of staff Dr. Ken Mattox.

Seven patients with minor injuries were taken to Memorial Hospital Southeast. All were in good condition, a hospital official said.

At Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena, chemical worker Danny George sat on the grass Monday afternoon, waiting to see if his brother, Rocky, would be brought there.

With anxiety showing in his face, George said his family has a long history of working in chemical plants, so he knows the risks. Still, that didn't help much after hearing his brother had been hurt, said George, who works at the Albemarle plant near the Phillips facility. He had not heard how serious his brother's injuries were.

"Phillips has got some problems," George said. "There's too many explosions. You've got to look at the history. Now, when you hear of an explosion, the first place you look at is Phillips.

"Any time you have an explosion without warning, it's a major problem. There was nothing on this one. I didn't hear anything except the explosion."

He said he was working in the control room when he and co-workers heard the blast.

"We went outside and there was nothing but black smoke," George said. "It was like having a house blow up next door to you."

He later learned that his brother had been taken to East Houston Regional Medical Center. No details about Rocky George were available, but officials there said they expected all of their blast victims to be released that night.

Staff members at Bayshore hurriedly made calls to other hospitals when relatives came in looking for someone who wasn't on their list. One woman came looking for her husband, who she said had phoned from the plant telling her he would be at the hospital. But hospital workers had no luck finding him.

Finally, he called on a cellular phone. He had not yet been removed from the plant area. After ending the call, she began to sob with relief.

Bayshore officials said 19 blast victims had been taken into the emergency room and three had been treated and released. They said 15 were listed as stable and expected to be discharged and one was expected to be admitted because of chest pains.

Spokeswoman Ruth Mische said the hospital had not treated any burn victims. The injuries were stressed-related -- shock, chest pains and trauma from the explosion, she said.

Initially, she said, the hospital expected 40 workers, but the number eventually was lowered to 20.

"Within seconds we pulled all of it together," said Sherry Peterson, the hospital's risk manager. "It's just part of operating a hospital in this area. With plants nearby, we have to be prepared."

OSHA investigators planned to return to the Phillips plant early today to begin searching for the explosion's cause.

"I don't know what has happened in this case," said Phillips spokesman Norm Berkley. "The only similarity (to the fatal 1989 explosion) is that we had a tragic, tragic day. We've had an explosion. We've had a fire. We've got injured employees. I couldn't feel worse about that.

"We have worked tremendously hard to make sure that a situation like that never, ever occurred again. Obviously, it has."

Phillips officials said anyone with questions about the explosion or about employees can call 800-766-6362.

The K-Resin made at the plant is a chemical used to make an array of products including clear packaging materials such as shrink wrap, bread wrappers, bottles for drinking water, clear boxes and trays, cups, lids, toys, shower doors, and high-quality coat hangers.

With a capacity of 370 million pounds per year, Phillips is the nation's major manufacturer of what is basically a toughening additive, according to Pat Duke of DeWitt & Co., a consulting firm.

K-Resin, which is a styrene-butadiene copolymer, was developed by Phillips in 1967 and is made by the company only at the Pasadena chemical complex.

The company has inventories of K-Resin and has part ownership of a plant in Asia that makes the resin, said a spokesman at Phillips headquarters in Bartlesville, Okla.

Chronicle reporters Salatheia Bryant, Leigh Hopper and Nelson Antosh contributed to this story.

-- mike in houston (mmorris67@hotmail.com), March 28, 2000

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