911 tapes show confusion over plant release

February 20, 2010 5:24:05 AM PST
Scary 911 tapes reveal the confusion in the minutes after a toxic cloud of chemicals is released into the air over Pasadena. "I need a yes or no right now! Is there going to be a shelter in place? I have been dealing with this for about 40 minutes," a voice was heard saying on emergency dispatch recording this past Tuesday.

We have exclusive new details about the release that sent an orange cloud of nitric oxide pouring out of a plant. The misinformation and confusion lasted for nearly an hour, all at a time when minutes count. The plant's manager told Eyewitness News earlier this week that he did everything right.

Pasadena 911 started getting calls from drivers on Highway 225 complaining about an orange cloud about 4:25pm Tuesday. Over the next 42 minutes, a frustrated 911 operator made 6 calls to the company and the CAER line before Air Products admitted a shelter-in-place was needed.

What the 911 tapes reveal will explain the confusion, but may not make you feel any better about how the system works.

Tuesday afternoon, we could see what was happening and how far that toxic orange cloud was spreading. But Pasadena 911 operators desperate for information couldn't get any.

"You've reached the desk of..." said what sounded like a voicemail greetingl.

"I haven't heard anything about it," said another voice.

The CAER line, which the company says it called, knew nothing.

"To reach emergency control in an actual emergency, please press 2," an automated voice said.

The Air Products emergency control center was useless.

"Are you all having some sort of leak?" asked the dispatcher.

"No," responded the Air Products employee.

At 4:47pm, 22 minutes after Pasadena 911 operators first tried to get information from the company, the plant manager calls 911 operators back.

"Hello, this is Jacques Joseph with Air Products," said the manager.

"Why did I never receive a call?" asked the dispatcher.

"Let me see something. You should've received a call," said Joseph.

"I didn't receive any calls."

With orange fumes spreading across 225 and reports of drivers having difficulty breathing, the company didn't ask for a shelter-in-place then.

"Let me have someone call you immediately and give you the information you need," said Joseph.

Someone calls back seven minutes later, but still isn't much help.

"This is Bill Mackie over at Air Products and Chemicals on Pasadena 225, 14...oh, I forgot my address."

While this employee admits it's a danger to public, he also claims they're managing the leak, but can't provide needed answers.

"Do we need to have a shelter in place or not?" said the 911 operator.

"Let me find out first," said the Air Products representative.

It's now been 30 minutes since 911 first called the plant. A truck driver is pulled over and having trouble breathing. The orange cloud is visible for miles, but the plant still won't admit there's a problem.

Forty-two minutes after the first call, the plant manager finally admits a shelter-in-place is needed, a crucial decision the emergency system relies on to protect neighbors.

"So there's going to be a shelter in place?" a voice asked. "Well, I'm trying to see," said the manager.

"I need a yes or no right now. Is it going to be a shelter-in-place,' said the dispatcher. "I've been dealing with this for about 40 minutes and I am looking up in my book that there could be respiration problems and possible death. That's not OK. The fact that you all reported this so late?"

"We, we...go ahead," said the manager.

Remember Jacques Joseph is the guy who told us Wednesday that he followed all proper protocols, the man his company stood behind, the man who tapes reveal was late to ask for a shelter-in-place, and who tried to get it lifted before police thought it safe.

Here, Joseph on the final 911 call released.

"I would also recommend you can lift the shelter-in-place," said Joseph.

"We can lift the shelter-in-place? But we can still actually visibly see a cloud right now," said the dispatcher.

"Well, if you were here with me, for specifically my area, I would wait a little while to do that," said Joseph.

The company tells us that since they haven't heard the tapes, they won't comment on what's on them. The TCEQ and the EPA are both investigating the apparent problems with notification.