Two Killed Gas Leak Apparently Triggers Explosion
MONT BELVIEU, Texas (AP) _ A series of explosions and fires rocked an underground storage tank at a refinery Tuesday, killing two workers, shooting jets of flames high into the air and forcing hundreds to flee their homes.
″We ran as fast as we could,″ said Dean Conley, an electrician working at the Warren Petroleum Co. refinery and natural gas storage plant. ″We didn’t stop to turn in our badges.″
It took about 200 firefighters nearly six hours to control the blaze, which was fed by three pipelines that could not be shut off because the intense heat kept crews away from valves, said Cul Ingram, a spokesman for Chevron Inc., which owns the complex.
One of the pipelines ruptured while construction crews were doing maintenance work, Ingram said. ″I don’t know how.″
Mayor Fred Miller, who called for the evacuation of the entire town of 1,200, lifted the order about 5 p.m. for about half the residents. He said residents living near the plant would not be allowed to go home yet.
Ingram predicted damage to the complex would be ″into the millions″ and that the charred area, about 10 percent of the plant, would be closed for a few weeks. The fire was fueled by liquified, highly flammable propane gas, he said.
The blasts occurred in a hollowed out salt dome used to store natural gas, including propane, underground at the company in Mont Belvieu. Smoke could be seen from Houston, about 30 miles away.
One worker, who asked not to be identified, said crews had been working on a gas leak for about 10 minutes when an alarm sounded.
″I just walked out the door,″ the worker said. ″Everybody knew what was happening. I think there was enough time for just about everybody to get out.″ ″I saw gas rising four feet off the ground,″ said Henry Ford, 40, a welder. ″It was dangerous but pretty. I turned my back and started running.″
At least three similar explosions have occurred in the area in the past five years.
″This is becoming an annual event,″ complained Bill Wallace, who owns a mobile home park in the community.
″There was a loud boom, then a big ball of fire. I’ve lived here most of my life and this is the worst one I’ve ever seen,″ Wallace said.
Shari Falk, 27, who lives about a mile from the refinery, said she fled her home after the third explosion Tuesday.
″It shook my bed. I jumped up and left,″ she said.
The two dead men, whose names were withheld until pending notification of relatives, were from a construction crew that had worked on the pipeline, Ingram said. The 56 employees of Warren Petroleum were not hurt and all were accounted for, he said.
A fire was reported at the refinery about 8:30 a.m., followed by the first explosion about fifteen minutes later, Police Chief Fred Dodd said. The second blast came about 8:55 a.m., followed by another five minutes later.
Warren Petroleum has operated for about 28 years and also is the largest natural gas storage facility in the area.
In 1980, officials discovered the presence of lethal hydrocarbon gases after a Mont Belvieu resident turned on her dishwasher and it ignited.
Officials found that more than 820 million cubic feet of ethane-propane had leaked from a well. At one point, more than 70 familes were evacuated from their homes, some as long as six months.
The mayor said city officials have tried since 1980 to get the industry to buy out the landowners.
He said the City Council will meet soon with Texas Gov. Mark White to discuss buyout options.
″People have suffered a lot and now they should be fair to these people,″ Miller said. ″We’re prepared to act but we’re waiting for them.″