Confusion revealed during 911 call

February 19, 2010 4:25:29 PM 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 from 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 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," said a voice on the call.

"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, 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," said the manager.

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

"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 doesn'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 wasn't much help.

"This is Bill Mackie over at Air Products and 12...oh, I forgot my address."

While this employee admits it's a danger to public, he also claims they're managing it, but can't provide an answer.

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

It's now been 30 minutes since 911 first called the plant. A truck driver is pulled over and having trouble breathing. The orange 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 will be a shelter in place?" a voice asked. "Well, I'm trying to see," said the manager.

"I need a yes or no,' 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 death. That's not OK."

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

Remember the 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 the man who tried to get it lifted before police thought it safe.?

This is the final call - at 5:36 Tuesday afternoon.

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

"But we can still see the cloud," said the dispatcher.

"OK," said Joseph. "I would wait a little while to do that."

Neither the company nor the plant manager returned our calls for comment Friday. TCEQ and the EPA are both investigating the apparent problems with notification.

The tapes aren't all. On the official notification to the state, Air Products says the leak didn't start until 4:45pm, at least 20 minutes after 911 calls started coming into the plant.