A look back at the worst industrial incidents in Houston’s history

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HOUSTON – Houston is no stranger to impactful industrial incidents, many that have claimed dozens and dozens of lives over the years.

The chemical leak that killed two people and injured 30 others at LyondellBasell’s La Porte plant is another reminder of the dangers that exist.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant industrial incidents, including fires, explosions and chemical leaks, to occur in the area’s history.

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1. Texas City disaster

When it happened: April 16, 1947

Where it happened: Port of Texas City, Texas at Galveston Bay.

What happened: A fire started on the SS Grandcamp (docked in the port) and detonated 2,200 tons of ammonium nitrate. This created more fires and explosions in other ships and oil-storage facilities. In total, 581 people died. Only one member of the Texas City Fire Department survived.

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2. Texas City Refinery explosion

When it happened: March 23, 2005

Where it happened: BP's Texas City refinery in Texas City.

What happened: A hydrocarbon vapor cloud ignited and exploded killing 15 people and injuring 180 others.

About the refinery: It was the second-largest oil refinery in the state, and the third-largest in the United States.

Who was to blame? Technical and organizational failings at BP, according to reports filed after.

3. Phillips Disaster

When it happened: October 23, 1989

Where it happened: Phillips Petroleum Company's Houston Chemical Complex facility near the Houston Ship Channel in Pasadena.

What happened: 23 employees died and 314 were hurt.

The impact: It took 10 hours to bring the fire under control.

Loss of facilities: Two polyethylene production plants that were located nearby were destroyed as was an administration building about a half a mile away. The explosion was equal to an earthquake registered 3.5 on the Richter scale.

An aerial image of the ITC fire in Deer Park on March 19, 2019.

4. ITC fire

When it happened: March 17, 2019

Where it happened: Deer Park

What happened: The fire spread throughout the facility, engulfing nine of the 15 tanks in the area. After it was put out, the fire reignited, sending a fireball into the air. Crews were able to put the fire out quickly.

Issues went on for days: Five days after the fire was initially put out and crews had started pumping the chemicals out of the remaining tanks, benzene – a known carcinogen – was detected in the air, prompting more school closures and another shelter-in-place order. On the sixth day after the initial fire, the facility suffered a break in a dike wall near the incinerated tanks. Hours after the break, two tanks and chemical runoff in a ditch caught fire, sending yet another plume of smoke over the Deer Park area. About a week after the initial fire, reports of several toxins found in the water near ITC prompted officials to close the ship channel.

An aerial image of the ITC fire in Deer Park on March 19, 2019.

5. Port Neches explosion after TPC chemical plant fire

When it happened: Nov. 27, 2019

Where it happened: Port Neches

What happened: At about 1 a.m., the community of Port Neches was rocked by a massive, fiery explosion in a processing unit at the Texas Petrochemicals Group (TPC) operations plant located at 2102 TX-136 Spur.

Two employees of TPC and one contractor were injured in the explosion. All three personnel were taken to a hospital and were released.

Issues went on for days: Evacuation orders were eventually lifted for the neighborhoods around the Port Neches plant that exploded Wednesday, however, many residents are returned to their heavily damaged homes with fresh concerns about air quality and asbestos.


About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, social media news and local crime.