Investigators working to determine cause of deadly plant explosion

By Vincent Crivelli - Reporter, Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Editor, Brittany Jeffers - Reporter

CROSBY, Texas - Just three weeks after there was a fire at an Exxon facility in Baytown and the ITC fire in Deer Park broke out, an investigation is underway into Houston’s third chemical fire and explosion that rocked the Crosby area, killing one plant employee and injuring two.

The Texas attorney general is filing a petition against the company for violations of the Texas Clean Air Act. 

Investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office are conducting an investigation to determine where exactly the fire started and what sparked it.

Investigators with the Fire Marshal’s Office have not been inside the chemical facility yet, because it’s still too dangerous, but they’re hoping to start their investigation inside later Wednesday afternoon or some time Thursday.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board announced it also will be sending investigators to KMCO.

"KMCO will remain vigilant in our air monitoring and rapid response until the site is completely stabilized," said Keith Terhune, KMCO’s VP of Operations. "We apologize to our neighbors for any discomfort or concerns they may have felt as a result of this incident."

Though all shelter-in-place orders have been lifted, some roads near the plant remain closed while emergency workers continue to monitor the situation.

RELATED: What we know about 'Bubba' Mangum, man killed in Crosby plant fire

Road closures include Crosby Dayton Road between Pecan Street and Lindstrom Road, and Ramsey Road between Clara Wilson and Crosby Dayton. 

Crosby ISD put out a notice saying classes would proceed on their regular schedule but advised parents that the road closures could affect some students’ routes. Students who live along the road closures will need to be taken to school because buses will not be able to access the area.

Sheldon ISD put out a notice saying it has issued a shelter-in-place order for three schools in the area because of a "gas-like odor" around them.

The district also said outdoor activities will be limited until the odor dissipates. All air vents for the affected schools will be closed to keep outside air from filtering into the buildings. The district said this does not affect the air conditioning, and it is just a precautionary measure.

 

“At the moment no one knows what happened with certainty and I won’t speculate,” KMCO CEO John Foley said during a news conference Tuesday.

RELATED: Here's what we know about KMCO in Crosby

Channel 2 Investigates uncovered KMCO has a history of problems. KMCO’s ownership changed in 2012, but since 2010 there were around 60 OSHA violations, with fines totaling nearly a quarter million dollars.

KMCO issued a statement addressing the violations, saying: 

KMCO, LLC acquired the Crosby facility in 2012. Therefore, KMCO, LLC did not own or operate the Crosby facility and is not responsible for any historic incidents or violations that occurred prior to 2012. After the acquisition, KMCO, LLC‘s new owners and new management team dramatically accelerated the process of transforming the company by investing tens of millions in new capital and re-investing ongoing profits in people, processes, policies, and facility upgrades to safeguard our employees and the community, as well as the integrity and sustainability of our business. We will work with authorities to investigate today’s incident thoroughly to prevent it from ever happening again. And with the help of our dedicated team, we will continue our mission of transforming KMCO into a next-generation, best-practice operator that meets and even exceeds the expectations of our customers, employees, surrounding communities, regulators and the industry at large.

Cody Manuel, who was at the plant when the explosion happened, said it was complete chaos.

“It was panic because you don’t know how big the explosion is going to be, you don’t know if you are going to make it home,” Manuel said.

RELATED: 'The house shook': Crosby-area residents recall deadly KMCO plant explosion

Area residents said the explosion rattled their homes.

“It sounded like a boom,” said one resident. “The house shook, the windows rattled and I just don't know what happened. I thought something fell on the house. I saw the smoke and I thought ‘I hope we don’t inhale anything,' and you know, nothing happens to my children."

When asked, Foley said he didn’t know when the last safety drill was or how many employees were on site when the explosion happened. 

“We want to apologize for residents in the vicinity and the worry that the incident has caused,” Foley said.

An odor was detected in the air after the fire, which has some parents concerned.

“To me, it smells like gas,” said Heather Hammer, a mother of two who lives about a mile from the chemical facility. “I couldn't even take in a deep breath and whenever I would my throat and my nose was on fire and I was actually coughing. It's scary … honestly, I would not have moved in here if I knew that plant was right there.”

Emergency workers have been at the KMCO facility for over 24 hours and will be going inside the warehouse that caught fire, for the first time to put out hot spots.

“It blows my mind that there's a plant that close to the kindergarten center because my daughter is going there, she'll start there in August and I am actually not even crazy about sending her this year,” said Hammer. 

Hammer said she plans to move and didn’t want her son to go to school Wednesday, but he insisted.

“I don’t want (my son) to go outside I would rather (him) come inside and play Xbox or read a book or something,” Hammer said. “I don’t want (him) to go outside and be active outside because I am worried what they are breathing in the air.”

Air quality is still being monitored by the EPA and Harris County officials. The Crosby Fire Department said it is aware of an odor in the area but latest reports "do not show any actionable items in the downwind area from the KMCO incident."

 

Many in Crosby said they're worried about what's in the air.

"It smelled funny out here, like burnt oil or something. I had a headache," Chris Cook said.

Plant operations have been suspended during the investigation.

"It is a chemical plant. You don’t know what is there. Obviously, it's not good air," Cassie Funderburk said.

KMCO is facing a lawsuit from the TCEQ for the unauthorized release of toxic chemicals.

"Being in shelter in place, I was worried about what is in the air from those chemicals, and people worrying if we inhale it there will be health issues later on?" Bonnie Quinn said.

One of the workers who was hurt in the blast, filed a lawsuit against the company.

The plaintiff in the case claims he suffered injuries to his "knee, ears, shoulders and other parts of his body" in the blast.

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