Future uncertain for Williams Olefins plant after deadly explosion

GEISMAR, LA (WAFB) - Williams Olefins administrators confirmed at a news conference on Friday the fiery blast happened in a section of the plant where a major expansion was underway. They said it is still unclear what caused the fire or the extent of the damage.

A small flare burned over Williams Olefins Friday afternoon. It was a calm and quiet scene below; a different picture from the stark reality that unfolded there Thursday morning.

"The priority concern for the plant and first responders was to be sure we could get everybody out. It was no small task with 839 people there all on foot," Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said.

Wiley recounted the critical moments following the blast that sent plant workers running for their lives and put the nearby community on edge. Dozens of people were rushed to area hospitals while relatives and friends waited on word.

Williams Olefins CEO Alan Armstrong was still shocked by the tragedy.

"This is a terrible and unprecedented tragedy and extremely difficult time for all of us," Armstrong said.

Plant manager Larry Bayer confirmed the fire was extinguished by 2 p.m. Thursday. Investigators returned to the site on Friday to assess the situation and look for a cause.  "We were in the process of conducting a very large plant expansion project. The plant had a lot of personnel working at the plant during the time of the incident," said Bayer.

"Williams' teams are working in twelve hour shifts and have remained in the facility control room to make sure everything is safely shut down and monitored," Bayer said.

Bayer said a crew of 25 workers makes up that team. The hundreds of other workers, however, were told to stay home until further notice.

"At this point we have absolutely no idea what it's going to take to bring the plant back up," Bayer said.

It was more tough news for a parish supported by a competitive chemical corridor.

"We love the petro chemical industry and we love the engine and the economics with the jobs and the quality of life it provides for us. Sadly on occasion we get reminded of the fact that things can happen," Wiley said.

Plant administrators said all workers will be paid while the plant is closed.

Copyright 2013 WAFB. All rights reserved.