Neighbors describe massive plant explosion

December 9, 2009 8:48:48 PM PST
An explosion at a chemical plant in the Bayport area Wednesday shook nearby homes, generated black smoke seen for miles and injured two workers. [YOUR PICS: Send in your photos or videos from the blast]

The blast happened at about 8:45am at the American Acryl plant along Port Road. Officials in Pasadena and Seabrook ordered residents to remain indoors after the explosion because the tank involved contained toluene, a toxic petroleum byproduct used in paint and gasoline, said Rosie Torres, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Dozens of schools in Clear Creek ISD were sheltered as well. That order was lifted late Wednesday morning.

Roads around the plant were closed but reopened late in the morning after a fire started by the explosion was brought under control, Torres said.

The plant's general manager, Joe Goins, says there was no indication that anything was wrong prior to that massive explosion. As many as 15 people were in the area of the unit when it blew up. Everyone, we are told, was accounted for within minutes.

Witnesses described it as one loud thud.

Witness Bianca Sutton said, "I heard this huge explosion sound and I thought a tree had fallen through my roof because it shook the whole house."

"I was in the house preparing myself and getting ready to go to school and I heard this loud explosion," said nearby resident Delores Sharp. "I ran outside and I went out to the street and saw the fire engine and I knew something had happened."

The explosion at American Acryl in Pasadena was followed by a giant fire. A thick, black plume of smoke could be seen for miles. The flames were coming from a manufacturing unit that processes acrylic acid. The blast involved the chemical toluene -- an industrial solvent that can be harmful if inhaled.

"We do not believe there was any off-site impact," Goins said. "Our monitoring has confirmed that there was no off-site impact."

It took emergency crews roughly 45 minutes to bring the situation under control and secure the scene. While the cause of today's explosion is unclear, OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency are assisting American Acryl with its investigation, though plant managers told us it's too early to speculate what that will entail.

One woman wonders if she didn't hear a prelude to the explosion before dawn.

"There was just this very loud pressure, like something being released," said Shore Acres resident Pat Walston. "I thought it was a ship or when the boom came later, that they had just dropped a big container."

"We're just thankful that everyone is safe," Goins said. "That's our main concern. Just making sure our employees are safe and that the company is behind them."

Two employees were taken to the hospital as a precaution. One has already been released. The other complained of breathing problems and is said to be in good condition.

While plant officials maintain there was never any impact to the air quality off-site, a TCEQ spokesperson did tell Eyewitness News there was a spike to the moderate range that was recorded at 9am at one of its continuous air monitoring stations in Seabrook. That was approximately 15 minutes after the explosion. Air quality levels returned to normal, we're told, around 10am.

American Acryl is a joint venture between Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer Arkema Inc. and Japanese subsidiary NA Industries, Inc.


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