Texas Oil Refinery Blast Kills at Least 15

At least 15 workers died and more than 70 were injured in an explosion at a BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, that sent massive plumes of black smoke into the air, shook buildings for miles and knocked a man off his barstool at a nearby tavern.

The explosion occurred at about 1:20 p.m. March 23 at the refinery's isomerization unit, which is part of BP's sprawling 1,200-acre complex in Texas City, according to refinery manager Don Parus. It took firefighters a little more than 2 hours to extinguish the resulting blaze, Parus said.

The cause of the explosion and fire is under investigation.

"Words cannot begin to express how I and the people of BP feel right now," Parus said. "This is an extremely sad day for Texas City and BP."

BP America President Ross Pillari said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who died and with those from the work force and the community who were injured."

The isomerization unit -- which produces components that raise the octane in gasoline -- was in the midst of a maintenance overhaul, or turnaround, at the time of the explosion, according to Hugh Depland, BP's general manager of public affairs for the region.

Since the isomerization unit was offline at the time of the explosion, Depland said the disaster's effect on production at the BP refinery has been "minimal." He added that the rest of the Texas City refinery "remained in production throughout the entire incident."

Pillari, who promised the company's full cooperation with authorities, said there's no indication of terrorism or sabotage, according to a CNN report. He said BP will "commit our full corporate resources to investigating the cause of the accident."

An OSHA spokesperson in Dallas said the agency already has two officials on the scene to conduct a preliminary investigation, and a team of OSHA officials will conduct a full-scale investigation once the disaster site is secured, she said.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) are on site.

Lead investigator Angela Blair and a team of six others, including CSB board member John S. Bresland, will commence an assessment of the incident. Depending on the outcome of the assessment, the board may proceed to a full investigation of the root causes, which typically takes a year or more to complete.

"The Scariest Thing I've Ever Seen"

Eyewitness accounts in the Galveston County Daily News describe a spectacular blast that shook buildings and rattled windows throughout Texas City, which is located on the western shore of Galveston Bay about 40 miles southeast of Houston.

"It was really loud," Carrie Vyvial, who was working in her office in the refinery's administration building when the explosion occurred, told the newspaper. "I could feel it in my chest. It felt like the roof was going to cave in or something. Some pictures fell off the walls. [The blast] sounded like really loud thunder. Everyone ran to the window to see what happened."

Vyvial called the plumes of smoke created by the blast "the scariest thing I've ever seen."

William Hudson, who was at the Texas City Tavern near the BP plant, said the explosion literally knocked him off his barstool.

"I've never felt a concussion like that, and I've worked around the plants for a long time, so I've been around for a lot of explosions," Hudson told the Galveston County Daily News.

Emergency management officials in Texas City declared the blast a Level 3 incident, and emergency siren systems throughout the city rang out shortly after the explosion. A Level 3 incident is one in which "the situation is not under control."

Wednesday's explosion was the city's worst catastrophe since the Texas City Disaster in1947, when an estimated 600 people died after a ship carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the harbor, triggering an explosion in another nearby ship and igniting blazes in several refineries and industrial facilities. It took a week to extinguish all the fires, according to a historical account on the Texas City Web site.

In an account eerily similar to those describing the March 23 blast, the Texas City Web site said the 1947 explosions caused "a great column of smoke [that] shot up an estimated 2,000 feet" and that "no one in the city was unaffected by the explosions and fires."

Refinery Has History of Citations

Twice in the past year OSHA has cited and fined BP for alleged safety violations at its Texas City facility, which employs more than 1,500 workers.

In early March, OSHA cited BP for one alleged willful and seven alleged serious violations stemming from a September 2004 accident in which two workers were killed and one was seriously injured. OSHA proposed fines of $109,500.

The agency says its investigation found that the employees were removing a 12-inch check valve from a high-pressure hot water line when they were engulfed by high-pressure, superheated water. The willful violation was issued to BP for "failing to relieve trapped or residual pressure within a pipe," which resulted in the flood of hot water and steam that killed the two employees, according to OSHA.

BP's Depland, who had been brought in as auxilliary communications help to handle the flood of phone calls from media members, said he didn't know whether BP had challenged the March citations.

OSHA issued citations and $63,000 in proposed fines in August 2004 for BP's alleged failure to protect employees from a chemical release and fire.

The agency issued citations for 14 alleged serious violations stemming from a March 2004 incident in which a pipe ruptured on a furnace, releasing flammable vapors that ignited a fire in the Ultraformer No. 4 desulfurizer section.

"BP Amoco had the experience and knowledge to prevent this accident, yet allowed hazardous conditions to develop," OSHA's Houston South area director Charles Williams said at the time the agency issued those citations.

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