Chemical plant explosion leaves 2 dead, 77 injured

Published: Jun. 13, 2013 at 1:10 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 14, 2013 at 9:23 PM CDT
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Zachary Green
Zachary Green
Scott Thrower (Source: Family friend)
Scott Thrower (Source: Family friend)
(Source: 9Reports)
(Source: 9Reports)
Source: Witness
Source: Witness

GEISMAR, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana officials report two people have died and 77 others were injured when a chemical plant exploded Thursday morning.

The explosion and fire happened at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, LA at 8:37 a.m. Louisiana State Police said the fire was put out around 2 p.m. There is still no word on what caused the explosion. Officials with the company held a news conference at noon Friday.

Williams Olefins CEO Alan Armstrong spoke during the news conference. He said they are very focused to determine the cause of the explosion.

Officials say extent of the damage from the explosion is unknown at this time. Employees were told to not repot to work until further notice. The employees of the plant will be paid during their time off.

The first man who died in the explosion was identified as Zachary C. Green, 29, of Hammond, LA. He was found in the plant by the Louisiana State Police Haz-Mat team after the fire. He was an operator at the plant. He started working at the plant in October.

Williams officials met with his family at their home Thursday. They added he will be missed by his friends at the plant and throughout the company.

"We are grieving for the loss of Zach who was part of our Williams community. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this time of sorrow. We also remain deeply concerned about Williams' personnel and contractors who sustained injuries, some quite serious," said Alan Armstrong, Williams' president and chief executive officer.

The man who died Friday afternoon has been identified as Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant. He passed away around 1 p.m. Thrower is survived by his wife Dana.

"On behalf of Baton Rouge General and our Regional Burn Center team, we express heartfelt condolences to Mr. Thrower's family and friends for their loss, and to all those affected by this tragic event," said Dr. Floyd Roberts, Baton Rouge General's Chief Medical Officer.

Of the three patients who were also being treated in the Regional Burn Center, one patient has been released and the remaining two patients are in good condition. Baton Rouge General received a total of 19 patients following the June 13 explosion that occurred at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geismar, La.

"We are extremely appreciative of the prompt and efficient actions by local and state law enforcement and emergency responders for their assistance in this difficult time. We are focusing all necessary resources on assisting those impacted and determining the cause of the explosion."

Williams added it has deployed grief counselors to the area. There were more than 800 workers on site at the time of the explosion. Williams also stated it is cooperating with federal, state and local agencies in assessing the situation and determining the cause of the explosion. The extent of damage is unknown.

A total of 25 people remain hospitalized.

Baton Rouge General Medical Center Mid-City held a news conference Friday morning. Dr. Flip Roberts said the hospital treated 19 people after the blast.

"We want the community to rest assured that our patients are in very skilled, caring and compassionate hands," Roberts stated. "Baton Rouge General is the very first hospital established in our area, and our Regional Burn Center was the first burn center established in Louisiana in 1970, and we provide highly specialized, leading edge care when it comes to the treatment of serious burns. Our team is doing everything we can for these brave patients and their families."

He noted out of respect for the families, the names of the patients are not being released.

Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center reported it received 12 patients in the trauma center. Two people were listed in critical condition, but they have both been upgraded to fair Friday morning. One patient was taken to the OLOL freestanding emergency room in Walker, LA.

St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales received 36 patients, all in good or fair condition. The latest reports indicate that 19 have already been discharged.

Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge received 13 patients for various complaints and symptoms as a result of possible chemical exposure.  All patients were treated and discharged.

According to OLOL and St. Elizabeth's Hospital, patients that were exposed to the chemical Ethylene-Propylene-Maleic Anhydride Copolymers were provided the proper decontamination and appropriate care. The patients sustained various injuries. Those included trauma and burn, fractured bones, and neck, back, abdominal and chest injuries.

Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of Louisiana State Police, reported every plant employee was accounted for. There were 10 employees who stayed in an explosive-proof control center inside the plant. Their job is to shut down the plant during an emergency. The 10 men have were allowed out of the safe room early Thursday evening.

"This was a tragic incident, and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Geismar and everyone who's been affected by the explosion," said Gov. Bobby Jindal. "That includes the workers and individuals who were in the plant at the time of the explosion and their families, and we wish those with injuries a safe and speedy recovery. We want to thank the brave work of our first responders who ran toward danger instead of away from it to help evacuate folks."

Once the situation was controlled enough to do so, plant employees were allowed to retrieve their cars and belongings.

A two-mile radius shelter-in-place was ordered following the explosion. It was later lifted, but during the news conference at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, Jindal announced there were still four additional plants in the area still under shelter-in-place orders. Those plants were Honeywell, Univer, Innophos and PCS Nitrogen.

Several roads were closed Thursday morning around the plant. All of those were reopened by Thursday evening. LA 3115 between LA 30 and LA 75 was reopened to traffic Friday just before noon.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) pipeline division said Enterprise Products Operating has indicated that they have shut-in their pipelines that enter the plant.

Meteorologist Steve Caparotta reported Doppler Radar out of Slidell detected the smoke plume from the initial explosion around 8:45 a.m. He said the radar beam would be sampling an elevation around 6,000 feet over Geismar.

During the Thursday afternoon news conference, Jindal said the plant had been approved for expansion and was in the middle of a turnaround.

According to Assistant DEQ Secretary Cheryl Nolan, there have been no detections above normal levels in the air, but DEQ is doing additional monitoring out of an abundance of caution. The results so far show no harmful effects.

According to DEQ, the release from the stack is reported to be residual propelyne, which is what's generating the smoke.

The American Red Cross disaster volunteers have deployed from around the state and are providing food, water and emotional support to those affected by the explosion.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is monitoring surge capacity at hospitals in order to ensure there is enough capacity at hospitals in the region if needed. DHH is also assisting with the coordination of ambulances for medical assistance. DHH has deployed four mobile crisis centers for mental health.

The Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness set up a reunification center Thursday for plant workers and their families at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana.

For those seeking family members, the Ascension Parish Emergency Operations Center has a set up a phone number: 866-380-2303. The EOC will not be able to patch callers through to their family members, but will be able to give callers the status of their loved ones.

The St. George Fire Department dispatched an engine company and a chief officer to East Iberville High School to assist with triage and treatment of patients as requested. Plant workers were taken by bus to various staging areas.

Homeland Security is also on scene assisting investigators, according to Lester Kenyon, the Public Information Officer for Ascension Parish.

"We train for these types of events because this is a heavy corridor for these types of plants along the Mississippi River," Kenyon told CNN.

Federal Safety Authorities in Dallas, TX confirmed that they've opened an investigation in to the Williams plant after Thursday's events. OSHA authorities say the plant has no inspection history with them.

A look through DEQ records, going back several decades, only reveals a few minor infractions and some minor complaints, which are common and fit in with the plants in that area.

US Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, released a statement in response to the explosion.

"I have reached out to the Chemical Safety Board and was told that the Board is actively assessing the explosion that occurred this morning at a Louisiana chemical plant," Boxer said. "I intend to follow this situation closely and have asked for updates as they become available."

According to Williams' website, it provides products to customers in the petrochemical industry. The Geismar plant produces 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, both flammable gases used in industrial chemicals and plastic products. Almost every plastic is ethylene based.

Williams employs more than 4,500 people at this plant. Operations span from the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Oil Sands.

The Olefin team is responsible for the ethane transportation business consisting of about 200 miles of pipelines, as well as a refinery-grade propylene splitter.

A fertilizer plant exploded in West, TX on April 17, killing 15 people – 12 of which were first responders - and injured hundreds. The explosion heavily damaged homes, businesses and schools in the town of 2,800. On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied additional aid to West.

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