'It felt like an earthquake'
GEISMAR - A bomb-like explosion ignited a raging fire at the Williams Olefins chemical plant early Thursday, killing one man and injuring dozens as terrified workers sought shelter from the sprawling flames.
At least 77 people were injured, and three people remained in intensive care hours after the blast, which could be felt from away. State Police identified the man killed in the explosion as 29-year-old Zachary C. Green, of Hammond.
“It’s a sad day in Geismar,” Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said. “It’s an industry that practices safety every second of every day, and regrettable things do happen.”
As authorities investigated the cause of the blast, Gov. Bobby Jindal said the plant would be held accountable if found responsible for the fire.
“We don’t have a theory yet about what happened,” Jindal said at an afternoon news conference near the site. “There will be further investigation afterward to determine what happened and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Plant workers had been in the midst of “some type of turnaround” at the plant when the fire began, Jindal said.
“I know the plant had been approved for an expansion project that was being constructed,” he said.
Green had only worked at the plant a few months at the time of the explosion, said his friend, Corey Pea, who was Green’s best man in May 2010. Pea remembered Green as a hard-working man who would do anything for his young daughter, Isabel.
“He will be missed by everyone and this is just a very sad day for me and a lot of other people,” said Pea, who went to Ponchatoula High School where Green played football and soccer. “I’m still trying to get over this. It is going to be really hard.”
The explosion happened about 8:37 a.m. at the facility near Geismar, located on La. 3115 near the Ascension Parish and Iberville Parish line. Dave Dulaney, a contractor from Houston, said he was about 120 feet from the explosion and took off running at the sight of the fire. “I saw the ball of fire,” he said, “and I felt the concussion.”
State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, said he happened to be at home about five miles away when the explosion occurred.
“For about a good two to three seconds, it felt like an earthquake,” Brown said.
Jamie Chambers, a worker at the nearby Honeywell plant in St. Gabriel, said he felt the “ground shaking” during the explosion and saw flames as high as 200 feet in the air. Cynthia Johnson, who lives nearby, said she and her daughter felt their mobile home “shaking” when the explosion occurred.
The tremors set off emergency sirens in the surrounding community and drew a massive response from state and local authorities, who blocked off highways around the plant. Four plants near the Williams Olefins facility scaled down their operations after the explosion, Jindal said.
Ambulances lined up in two rows on either side of La. 3115, and helicopters were later staged on the same highway as the injured were taken to a makeshift triage near La. 74.
“I don’t think it could have been handled any better under the circumstances,” Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Authorities set up a command post at La. 3115 and La. 30. Arching streams from two fire hoses could be seen pouring on the still smoldering plant as a nearby smoke stack burned off flammable materials, shooting a thick black cloud of smoke into the sky.
Hot and tired workers in coveralls gathered under pop-up tents along La. 3115, and a Geismar firefighter poured water from a fire hose on a worker on a stretcher. Smoke could be seen from a few miles around, including the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales where many workers were taken after at least 300 people were evacuated from the plant.
Stephany Hillerman, clinical director of the South Central Louisiana Human Services Authority under the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said 12 mental health counselors were at Lamar-Dixon to assist victims and their families.
Tearful and joyous reunions occurred in the center’s parking lot as family and friends found their love ones safe after hours of worrying with little or no contact following the news of the massive explosion and fire. Stacks of delivered pizzas arrived for the remaining workers as they waited for a ride from family or one of the buses carrying workers back to their vehicles still parked at the plant.
Shavonne Stewart, 40, of Baton Rouge, had worried some because her cellphone had been dead throughout the morning.
Stewart had been in a van near the explosion in the front of the facility and heard a loud boom that she initially mistook for a flat tire. She said she could feel the pressure of a ball of fire as it expanded behind her.
“I just saw everyone running, she said. “The fire was, you know, it was engulfing.”
Another worker, Manuel Navarro, 39, of Gonzales, was atop one of the facility’s structures near where the explosion occurred. He said he saw white smoke but did not feel a concussion wave.
“I just felt the heat,” he said.
By late morning, state and parish officials said the fire had been contained on the 25-acre site south of La. 30. Off-site impact was minimal, Wiley said, because the flammable materials thought to be involved had been burned off.
The facility produces about 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene a year, according to the company’s website. Ethylene, propylene are both highly flammable gases at normal atmospheric pressures. The plant also handles transportation of ethane through a pipeline and has a refinery-grade propylene splitter.
At least 51 people had been released from area hospitals by Thursday evening, said Christina Stephens, of the state Department of Health and Hospitals. Fifteen workers were seen with burns, she said, and three people were listed in intensive care.
Around 4 p.m., a caravan of vehicles from the office of the Louisiana State Fire Marshal arrived on the scene at the plant to begin their assessment of the situation.
“Right now, we don’t know what happened,” State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson said. “Once we deem the place safe, we’ll start the investigation along with plant personnel to find out exactly what chemicals (were) involved.”
Jean Kelly, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency was called just after 9 a.m. and sent staff to the area to start air monitoring. There was an initial report of ethylene being released, but information was still being gathered, she said. Kelly said it was unclear where or how the fire started, she said.
The first round of air monitoring in the community along La. 30 between La. 3115 and La. 73 had been completed, Kelly said, and the readings had been “non-detect” in the middle of the plume.
Jennah Durant, spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 6, confirmed that EPA was sending contractors to conduct additional air monitoring.
At Lamar-Dixon, Sarah Williams, 24, of Baton Rouge, stood alone in the parking lot, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Her husband, Kevin Williams, had been working at the plant on a water crew when the blast happened. He began working at the plant just last week.
“He told me he heard a thump and a boom,” she said, recalling a phone call she received from her husband. “He said it was bad.”
Moments after she made those comments, Williams walked into Lamar-Dixon and spotted her husband among a facility teeming with more than 200 people. She ran to him and hugged him, expressing relief that he had been spared from the blaze.
Contributing to this report were David J. Mitchell, Terry L. Jones, Steven Ward, Darlene Denstorff, Vic Couvillion, Ben Wallace, Amy Wold and Jim Mustian.