Search continues for worker following plant blast

February 9, 2011 3:22:28 PM PST
A fire erupted at a petroleum plant east of Houston on Tuesday, sending balls of orange flame and thick black smoke into the sky. One contract worker remains unaccounted for. The Mont Belvieu Police Department says the explosion happened just after noon Tuesday at Enterprise Products on Sun Oil Road.

The search continues for Rick Shaw, 43. Shaw has been working as a contract employee for Turner Industries, according to his brother Mark Shaw.

"We need to confirm if he was in there to begin with and then determine if anyone saw him leave or if anyone saw him not leave," Enterprise spokesperson Rick Rainey said. "That's all a part of what we're trying to find out right now with interviewing other people that were there."

Rainey also said the company has been in contact with the missing worker's family.

"Obviously, we're working in coordination with all the parties involved," he said.

Eight to 10 employees were on site when the explosion occurred, but no injuries were reported.

According to Enterprise, an employee in the control room detected something abnormal shortly before the explosion and began shutting down lines. When the blast happened, the company shut off the rest of the valves and waited for the fire to burn itself out.

The blaze was at Enterprise's west storage facility, not the main facility. That part of the facility stores natural gas liquids. Company officials don't yet know the cause, though they suspect that a rupture in the pipeline caused the blast.

"Until we can get in there and take a look, we really won't know exactly what the source was or what exactly is the extent of the damage," Rainey said.

Steve Mears told us he was working nearby.

"I was just south about 100 yards. At first there was a pop, and a cloud of white mist, then a plume of flames. I noticed some horses running away," said Mears. "I could feel the concussion when it first went off -- bright orange and yellow flames. I was in my car and fired it up and headed to a safe location."

Eyewitness Oscar Saenz told us, "Around 12:15pm I heard two loud blows -- like boom, boom," and saw the huge flames at the facility.

Another man we spoke to said he talked with his dad who is a supervisor at the plant.

"He said that there were about eight explosions and everyone was accounted for and it was pretty bad," said Chris Diller.

Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia had advised residents to avoid the area, and authorities shut down nearby streets and a stretch of Highway 146 through Mont Belvieu until the fire was essentially extinguished.

Mont Belvieu City Hall said no evacuation were ordered, though Barbers Hills ISD schools had a modified shelter in place.

In the area beneath Mont Belvieu are salt caverns that make up the world's largest storage site for hydrocarbons. Numerous leaks, explosion and other industrial accidents have occurred in the area's petrochemical plants over the years, including an underground gas leak in 1980 that forced 72 families from their homes for nearly five months.


According to its website, "Enterprise owns a state of the art gasoline additive production facility that has been modified to produce isooctane, a motor gasoline octane enhancement additive used in reformulated motor gasoline blends to increase octane, and isobutylene." [Company website]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.