Rants, Raves, & Random Thoughts

Shameless self-promotion of my writing skills or lack there of.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Workplace Safety

My boss sent this account out as an example of why we follow such stringent safety guidelines at our plant.

THE BP EXPLOSION / Workers could only watching horror / Unknown to many victims, witnesses say, a gas eruption signaled trouble.

By ANNE BELLI, TERRI LANGFORD, and TOM FOWLER - Staff

It was shortly after 1 p.m. on a sunny spring day, and contractors working on the gasoline-producing "ultra cracker" unit had just finished eating fajitas brought in from Gringo's Mexican Cafe.

BP had catered lunch for the workers as a reward for completing another week's work without injuries. Now everybody was getting back to business - climbing scaffolding, getting in vehicles, moving equipment and operating generators.

More than a dozen contractors from JE Merit gathered in a nearby construction trailer for an afternoon staff meeting. Unknown to many of the workers, part of a nearby isomerization unit - used to boost the octane level of gasoline - was about to be restarted after a long period of maintenance.

Shortly after 1:15, the radios started crackling: "What's that coming out of that stack?" "I hope that's water. God, I hope that's water." Workers watched in shock as a clear liquid shot out of the top of a 100-foot ventilation tower in the isomerization unit.

When a cloud of gaseous vapors from the liquid then quickly formed over the stack and began to spread, it became clear this wasn't water.

"Turn the equipment off!" workers screamed. A few hundred feet away, and about 70 feet high up on a catwalk, Glenn Alexander saw the vapor cloud forming. He immediately thought of his wife, Lorena Cruz-Alexander, a JE Merit worker who had just returned to work in the trailer parked near the stack. The liquid was forming puddles and vapors were gathering near the ground.

Truck draws panic

Workers watched in horror as a white pickup began backing into a puddle. They screamed at the driver to stop the truck and get out of there, when suddenly the hood of the truck flew open, the engine began to rev, and smoke engulfed the undercarriage.

"I knew what was fixing to happen," said one contractor. "That was enough ignition right there. You could have scraped a rock and lit this thing up."

Other witnesses told federal investigators that they heard the engine of a diesel truck idling near the tower, but it is not clear whether this was the same truck. And it is not yet known if either was the ignition source.

The driver and passenger of the pickup darted from the truck as employees scattered. No alarms ever sounded, witnesses said, and it's unclear whether the JE Merit workers sitting in the windowless trailer
ever had an inkling of the spreading threat as they worked at their desks and computers.

But outside the trailer, workers not only could see the terrible magnitude of what was about to happen, they also felt it.

Like a merciless vacuum, the air around them was being sucked up toward the tower. On the ground, the contractor said, the rush of air sounded like a freight train. Up on the catwalk, Alexander heard a deafening, high-pitched whistling sound.

As he ran against the wind, the contractor said, an initial blast knocked him several feet into the air and sent him tumbling. He made it to his feet and took two or three running steps when there was a massive
explosion, "three times as powerful," that sent a wall of fire and debris flying in all directions, he said.

"I could feel it behind me, but I never looked back," he said. "We were running our asses off."

A husband's nightmare

Running for cover up on the catwalk, Alexander turned around and looked at the trailer where his wife was working. He watched in terror as a ball of fire engulfed it.

"I saw it roll over the top of my wife's trailer," he said. "I knew she was in serious trouble." A second or two later, a visible wall of warped air - a pressure wave created by the monstrous blast - began charging toward him.

"It slammed us into the deck," he said. "I've never seen anything like that. I have never seen air buckle and move like that."

After the pressure wave passed, Alexander looked back at the trailer. "It was completely gone," he said, his voice starting to crack. "There was nothing but the floor. The desks. The file cabinets. The bodies were all scattered outside."

His co-worker helped him get to the ground, where he then began to walk in disbelief toward the trailer and his wife - and the intense heat resulting from the massive burning fire.

"I said, `I have to see if I can help her," he said, "but he is yanking me back. He finally got me back to the safe zone."

Once there, he fell to his knees in prayer, hoping against hope that his wife somehow miraculously survived the deadly explosion.

But Cruz-Alexander was indeed among several contractors who were meeting in the trailer parked near the unit and was killed. In all, 15 died in the blast.

`Man down! Man down!'

Panicked and injured workers screamed for help on their radios. "Man down! Man down! I need help! Man down!" they cried. "Everybody was crying, `Oh my God!' said the contractor, who suffered only minor injuries. "People are a bloody mess. Glass is blown into their faces. People's uniforms are darn near ripped off of them. People were choking and throwing up."

Amid the carnage of the construction trailer, remarkably, not all had perished. Jack Skufca was at the top of the pile. Under him were other injured co-workers. Inches away, just within reach, was a radio. The blast had ruptured his aorta, broken his ribs and fractured his skull, but Skufca was able to reach the radio and call in his location to rescuers. Within minutes, he was rushed to the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he remains in intensive care, said his brother, Bob, who recounted the ordeal Friday.

Hundreds of calls to 911

Outside the plant, the explosion was heard and felt more than five miles away. Windows were blasted out of homes and businesses. People rushed outside to see a black cloud and flames rising into the sky.

Hundreds of people called 911 to report the blast - more than 90 in the first two minutes. "It blew out the windows in my house!" said one caller. Another asked, "Can you tell me if we're safe? The plant just
blew up!" A minute or so after the blast, a harried Texas City police dispatcher called the BP plant. "What is going on?" the dispatcher asked a security officer. "We just had an explosion," the officer responded.
She directed emergency-response workers to the main gate of the plant.

By then, firefighters from Texas City's Station No. 1 had already jumped into action. Capt. David Teverbaugh and two firefighters rushed immediately to the scene. They arrived by 1:25.

"In my 22 years on the job, this was the worst devastation I've seen," said Teverbaugh, his voice growing quieter. "It was pretty horrific going in."

He described a scene of twisted metal, burned-out cars and charred debris strewn everywhere. Within minutes, a search-and-rescue team was called in, ambulances began lining up outside the refinery and Life
Flight helicopters had been requested.

Working closely with BP officials, Texas City firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze and feverishly looked for survivors - searching under cars, digging under debris and looking up in the rafters.

Meanwhile, BP officials beyond the blast site were spreading the word that there had been an explosion. At 1:32 p.m. an environmental engineer called the National Response Center in Washington.

The NRC, manned by the Coast Guard, is the federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills. "Reporting a material release from a process unit that was involved with a fire and explosion," the
resulting report stated.

In the section of the report that asks whether there was any community impact because of the hazardous material release, the NRC operator typed in "No."

Over the next several hours, firefighters and paramedics brought out victim after victim, loading them into ambulances and sending them to area hospitals. In all, more than 100 were injured.

For the most gravely wounded, a helicopter was the fastest way to get care. Two helicopters hovered above the site as a patient was loaded into one on the ground. One would take off to UTMB, then another would land - over and over again.

"All of them were burn victims," said Kelly Rothrock, a Texas City fire investigator. One disheveled onlooker watched in disbelief as paramedics loaded an unconscious woman onto a waiting helicopter.
"That's my wife," Rothrock said the man told her. "He was just in shock."

Last week, those closest to the tragedy were still trying to deal with what they saw that day, as well as their anger that so many people had died.

A.J. Ramos Jr., whose father, Art Ramos, died in the blast as he attended a meeting in the trailer, said his father and other non-essential workers should not have been at the site that day.

He noted that the blast occurred as BP was restarting the isomerization unit - and that shutting down and restarting the units is considered one of the most dangerous times in the operation of a refinery.

Alexander, who said he and his wife had been planning to start a family this year, echoed Ramos' anger. "If I had known (the restart) was happening, I would have gotten Lori away from where she was," he said.
"He just happened to be in the area," Ramos said "If they were going to start something up, they should have all of those people go home to have a nice Easter weekend."

Instead, dozens of families spent Easter weekend holding vigils at the bedsides of the injured while other families planned funerals.

Morris King's was the first, with services March 28. Kimberly Smith's was the last. She was laid to rest Saturday.

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