Second victim dies from Thursday plant explosion

Plant fire update
Plant fire update

A second worker critically injured in Thursday’s explosion at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Ascension Parish died Friday afternoon as the Tulsa, Okla., company regained control of its shattered Louisiana facility from state emergency officials and while federal regulators looked into the still-unknown cause of the deadly fire.

Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant, Williams supervisor of operations and a company employee since April 1999, succumbed to his injuries at Baton Rouge General Medical Center’s burn unit.

“Our deepest sympathies are with Scott’s wife, his family and friends,” Alan Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of Williams, said in a statement.

Thrower’s death came one day after Zachary Green, 29, of Hammond, who joined the company in October, was killed in the fire.

A massive fireball, reported to have shaken the earth, emitted a loud boom and reached as much as 200 feet in the air, rattling Williams’ Geismar plant at 8:37 a.m. Thursday, fueled by what company officials think was highly flammable propane and propylene.

The blast at the propylene fractionation unit sent workers running for safety and kicked into gear a major emergency response that shut area highways for hours and moved to get workers out of harm’s way.

Company officials said the fire was out by 2 p.m. Friday but that they did not yet know when plant operations would be back up and running. Bayer said the entire plant has been depressurized and “is approaching a very safe condition.”

All the roads closed Thursday around the plant have been reopened. La. 3115 in between La. 30 and La. 75 reopened Friday after 11:30 a.m.

Other developments on Friday included the following:

Williams officials also could not say what caused the fire or whether it was connected to an expansion project under way aimed at boosting the plant’s production of ethylene.

But officials did say the expansion meant a large number of personnel, 839, were working at the plant Friday, a few hundred more than first reported.

The tally of injured workers remained a moving target throughout the day Friday, but rose above the 77 reported injured Thursday evening.

As of late Friday afternoon, of the 91 workers who went to hospitals in Baton Rouge and Gonzales, 84 had been released, said Olivia Watkins, press secretary for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Five people remain hospitalized Friday, three in good condition and two in fair condition, hospital officials said.

But Larry Bayer, manager of the Geismar plant, reported on Friday that 100 of Williams’ contractors received “medical attention” and two Williams Olefins employees were hospitalized.

One of them was Thrower. The other was released later Friday, a company spokesman said.

State Police Capt. Doug Cain said in a news release that the Louisiana State Police Emergency Services Unit concluded operations at the plant Friday and relinquished control back to Williams Olefins.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, along with the air monitoring contractors hired by Williams, will continue to assess the air and water quality on and around the facility and report any readings of concern to State Police.

A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator arrived at the plant to begin an in-depth investigation as to the exact cause of the fire, Cain said.

OSHA will review every operational aspect at the time of the fire by examining work orders, work assignments, processes ongoing at that time and any other pertinent factors including actions of the contractors who were on-site.

The State Police Emergency Services Unit will request a copy of OSHA’s final report and will make it part of the State Police investigative file.

Diane Petterson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, said OSHA policies do not allow it to release information during an investigation.

“It’s difficult to say at this time how long the investigation will take, but statutorily OSHA has six months to complete it,” she said in an email.

Earlier Friday, Armstrong said at a news conference he felt “helpless” when he found out about the explosion Thursday morning through a news release while he was in Washington, D.C.

“When you first see it, it’s hard to know what to do in a situation like that. You feel pretty helpless,” he said.

Armstrong and Bayer defended the company’s quick reaction to the explosion and fire and pledged to work with regulators to find out what happened and prevent it from happening again.

“We are very focused right now and we will be getting focused on bringing all the necessary resources that we can bring and working closely with both federal and state authorities to determine the cause of this terrible accident,” Armstrong said.

“Once we better understand the cause, we will certainly be taking the necessary steps to learn from this event and make sure that we’ve done everything we possibly can do to prevent anything like this from happening both within our own company and within the industry.”

Armstrong also defended Williams Olefins’ plant safety record, saying he was shocked to learn about the tragedy at the Geismar plant. Armstrong said he and others in his industry have worked for years trying to improve the chemical plant’s safety.

“And so when something happens like this, it really feels like a failure,” he said.

Bayer said the large smokestack seen burning off a black cloud of smoke Thursday was removing the balance of chemicals remaining at the plant to ensure the safety of first responders.

Bayer said some residual material was being released from damaged infrastructure or being burned off in the flare Friday.

Joining Armstrong at the news conference, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley called the area’s industrial corridor one of the safest in the world. Wiley also praised the petrochemical industry as, “the backbone of the community.”

The first lawsuit over the explosion and fire at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Ascension Parish was filed Friday morning by a Turner Industries employee working at BASF who alleges he inhaled fumes from the cloud of black smoke belching from the burning plant.

Galen Mitchell, 42, of LaPlace, said he was working on 70-foot-high scaffolding and was told to continuing working throughout the day, though other nearby plants evacuated their personnel. Mitchell said he could see everything from high in the scaffolding, which he and other workers were taking down.

“From where I was looking, it looked like two explosions. It was so wide. That fire was so wide,” he said.

In the lawsuit, Salvadore Christina, one of Mitchell’s attorneys, said the worker suffered from nausea and dizziness. Mitchell said the air also irritated his sinuses but is more worried about the long-term health effects from breathing in the air for several hours.

“I really feel we should have been told to be evacuated out of there,” Mitchell said.

He said a wind sock at the plant showed the wind was blowing in the direction of BASF, which is east of the Williams Olefins plant located on the southeast corner of La. 3115 and La. 30.

He said men walking around the plant with air monitors told him it was safe to continue working. He said he stayed on the job at BASF until 5 p.m.

On Friday, State Police Troop A spokesman, Trooper 1st Class Jared Sandifer, said the fire and explosion did not affect areas surrounding the 25-acre plant site.

Filed in the 23rd Judicial District Court in Gonzales, the suit seeking damages against Williams Olefins requests class-action status and would perhaps include the nearby community of Geismar.

The suit alleges Williams knew or should have known its equipment was defective and the substances released were harmful.

Plaintiff’s attorney Christina works for the Becnel Law Firm LLC in Reserve.

A records check shows no other suits had been filed against the company Friday in the three-parish 23rd Judical District or in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.

Tom Droege, spokesman for Williams, said that under company policy, Williams does not comment on litigation.