TPC Refinery Fire - November 2019

Port Neches, Texas

 

For those of you from out of town, this event has gained national news.  It started at 1:00 AM in the morning early in the week of November 25, Thanksgiving Week.  Some folks were directly affected who lived near the plant, windows and doors blown out. 

What shook up many folks was the next day, some 12 hours later, an additional explosion took place.  I actually felt that from my place in the Southern part of Groves.  This scared lots of folks so the county, city, and local leaders declared an emergency and called for an evacuation of Port Neches, parts of Groves, parts of Nederland, and even parts of Port Arthur.

What I want to post here is an email I received from one of our classmates, George Boland.  He relayed a posting from Facebook that details and explains much of the problem and what action our leaders took and why.  It's a bit long but if you want the full story, it's all there.

Thanks to George Boland.....

Thanksgiving Port Neches, TX - Fighting through "The Gates of Hell"

Dear all my Family, Friends, Brothers & Sisters in Christ,

Margaret found this post on Facebook. I have to share it, no question in my mind and heart! For all us who live in Mid County, this best describes what we all went and through and was in our minds and hearts for the last few days and nights. It is a long post, so you may want to read for awhile then go back to it. Please take the time to read all. Thanks! God is Good!

YBIC,

George

What are you thankful for tonight?

Written by Andrew Parks

Between Christmas and Halloween, Thanksgiving can sometimes feel like the holiday equivalent of ďgoing through the motions.Ē Iíd be lying if I said I wasnít going through the motions when I drove into Port Neches around 11:30 PM Tuesday night. I was expecting our normal Thanksgiving ritual: a late lunch on Thursday combining barbecue and traditional Thanksgiving fodder, with a smattering of family and close friends crammed into our living room and the Cowboys playing on TV.


Then, around 1 AM Wednesday morning, the gates of hell seemingly opened just three blocks from where I was sleeping.

Those of you from Southeast Texas know this and donít need to hear me say it, but those of you from elsewhere probably donít and need to understand it. For natives of the refinery towns that dot the upper Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts, an explosion at a petrochemical plant is, bar none, our worst nightmare. Itís a much worse scenario than a natural disaster. Where hurricanes come with several daysí warning and an opportunity to get out of the way, the most warning you might get for an industrial explosion is a siren moments before the event. In this case, our only warning was a split second of orange sky preceding the shockwave and ear-shattering boom, which was missed by the many of us who were asleep. Where tornadoes carve a path of destruction at most a few thousand feet wide but often several miles long, a blast from a plant carries the potential of leveling everything for miles in every direction, in a manner akin to an atomic bomb. A flood provides the opportunity for escape by alighting for higher ground. For the average citizen, thereís really no defense for the brunt of an industrial blast, or whatever you might be exposed to if you make it through.

We live with the threat of it constantly in the background of our lives. Every Wednesday of my childhood was marked by a loud siren announcing a weekly, noontime drill at the same TPC plant that went up in flames yesterday. I vividly remember practicing shelter-in-place procedures all through elementary school. Weíre taught what smells to be wary of. The odor of almonds, for example, indicates the presence of hydrogen cyanide - which can kill in mere seconds. Rotten eggs means sulfur or something sulfuric; short of the acid, itís just a mild irritant. And weíre taught the approximate blast radii of explosions in different types of industrial facilities. A liquefied natural gas facility, for instance, is reputed to have a blast radius of up to 40 miles. And though we never really expect these incidents to occur, weíre always wary of the possibility, because the way we make our living and the environment we live in never really lets us forget it.

When the first, and worst, blast occurred, it sounded so much like something crashing down directly above me that I initially thought I was in my Austin apartment and a piece of furniture had toppled over in my upstairs neighborís bedroom. When the crashing sound was followed by my motherís screams and I came fully to, I found my darkened room lit by an eerie orange glow permeating from my windows. Running past shattered glass from fallen pictures down the hall leading away from my bedroom, I found a piece of trim blown around twelve feet inward from our front doorframe when the door, deadbolt and all, was bashed in by the shockwave. Running through the doorway into our front yard brought visuals of something more akin to a volcanic eruption than an industrial fire, with uproarious flames easily exceeding 500 feet in height, a night sky lit like a setting sun and burning debris shooting even higher into the air before incinerating entirely among the smoke.

Decades of training absorbed as much by osmosis as anything else - an entire lifetime of conditioning, really - kicked in. Get inside and bring any outdoor pets with you. To the best of your ability, shut and seal all doors and windows. Shut down any air conditioning system that could pump toxic fumes in from the outdoors. Take refuge in a room near the center of the home, away from windows that could shatter. Attempt to account for all family members. If you have power, turn on a radio or television and await emergency instructions from local media outlets. Be aware of your surroundings, especially odd smells. It was a first grade safety class at Woodcrest come to life, and while we were huddling in a house that had been shaken down to its frame, Iím not above admitting that for the first time since Hurricane Rita more than fourteen years ago, I didnít know if I would survive the night. Questions raced through my head as I wondered if a second, stronger explosion was seconds away, or if I was being exposed to a toxic gas. I donít yet know if this has supplanted Ritaís landfall as the most frightening night of my life, but it has certainly come uncomfortably close.

An experience like this on the eve of our perennial holiday of gratitude would give anyone pause. Today, I wasnít going through the motions anymore; whatever Thanksgiving plans might have survived the initial explosion, the dozen or so smaller ones that followed in the twelve hours afterward or the second, major explosion that clearly told a community beginning to believe the worst was over to assume nothing, they were thrown out the window when the evacuation orders were handed down. And all of that has a way of putting things in perspective. We have a tendency to rush past the holiday where we appreciate what we have in favor of the holiday where we expect to receive what we donít. For me, at least, this situation stopped that rush dead in its tracks, and renewed appreciation that otherwise would have been purely ceremonial.

So what am I thankful for? First and foremost, Iím thankful that there were no fatalities. Every time Iíve been told what to expect if an explosion occurred at one of our plants, death has underscored all of it. This region of the country periodically experiences an explosion of this magnitude, and there are always casualties. Texas City in 1947. Norco in 1988. Pasadena in 1989. Texas City again in 2005. West in 2013. But whatís different about Port Neches in 2019 is that, miraculously, no one was killed. Only three were hurt on site, and the local news is only aware of five who were hurt in their homes. None are seriously injured. I saw someone from Orange County post a Facebook status yesterday comically expressing excitement at the superpowers his friends in Port Neches would inevitably develop. Admittedly, I laughed. But I think Port Neches may already have a superpower, and I think it may have something more to do with those little white crosses than it does exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Next, Iím thankful that so little damage was done to our homes. Yes, there were shattered windows, broken doors, collapsed ceilings and the occasional busted brick. There were no roofs blown off or homes caught in the flames. The lionís share of the affected homes are still habitable. The few that arenít can be returned to that condition relatively quickly. Our neighborhoods have suffered less of an impact than they ordinarily do during a tropical storm. Iím especially thankful that my parentsí home, though itís actually suffered more damage than any stormís ever done, has successfully passed its eighth test in 21 years with flying colors.


Iím thankful we had places to go and family and friends willing to take us when the evacuation orders came. When the initial evacuation was called after the first explosion and we believed we were within the half-mile radius, Robert Arnold didnít hesitate. When the second large explosion came and the zone was increased to a four mile radius, John and Anna Jane Brian took us without a second thought. Iím thankful for a nice Austin apartment that can house us comfortably now while we salvage what we can of the holiday weekend. On that note, at the risk of contradicting the theme of this post, Iím thankful for Chinese restaurants that stay open late and donít celebrate American holidays. When Thanksgiving dinner falls through, they make for a great fallback option.

Iím thankful the flames are finally dying down, the worst of it appears to be over and that it all appears to be coming to an end. Of course, after yesterday afternoonís explosion, which rocketed a cooling tower some 700 feet or more in the air at a time when we thought the situation was stabilizing, Iím thankful I have some wood to knock on as I type that, too.

Iím thankful for strong, decisive, effective, skillful and prudent local and state leadership carried out with the best interest of the public at the forefront of all decision-making. I came away from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 convinced Jeff Branick is the best county judge in the history of Jefferson County. After the last 48 hours, Iím convinced heís the best local elected official in the entire country. Growing up next door, Iíve always felt Glen Johnson is a fine mayor. After this week, I believe heís the best mayor Port Neches has ever had - and I donít say that lightly, given the shoes he had to fill when he took office. Iím thankful for our police chief, Paul Lemoine, going out of his way to keep the public informed even in between press conferences and press releases, realizing the anxiety many Port Neches residents felt in leaving their homes behind. Iím thankful Governor Abbott reinforced our local law enforcement presence with 30 additional state troopers to inhibit looting, taking one concern off the minds of Southeast Texans all too familiar with the most heinous after-effects of disaster.

Most importantly, Iím thankful for our first responders. Our firefighters in particular are the heroes of all of this, and their relentless efforts have been nothing short of herculean. If the gates of hell really did open in Port Neches yesterday morning, the firefighters fought the demons. Iíve included a picture showing an old high school band mate, Alex Rozell, standing among the wreckage in a part of the plant where the flames were extinguished this afternoon.

If thatís what the wreckage looks like now, I can only imagine the magnitude of the inferno that made it. Iím thankful for Alex and his brothers in arms, who saw that inferno firsthand and charged into it with intrepidity befitting the bravest men and women this world has to offer. (Note: I did not take this picture, and I donít actually know who did. I wish I could give credit where itís deserved. Itís worthy of the cover of TIME, in my opinion.)

And lastly, Iím thankful to be a product of a community with the strength and resilience to weather challenges of catastrophic proportions like these. A meme has been floating around the last several hours with pictures of flooding from past tropical cyclones and TPCís blazes behind the old adage, ďcome hell or high water.Ē Analogous symbolism aside, Port Neches, and the Golden Triangle generally, really do define that phrase. In the aftermath of Rita, when our area fought its way back to recovery while the rest of the country turned a blind eye, I learned just how strong Southeast Texas was. Iíve never questioned what weíre made of, or the fact that itís apparently waterproof, in the years since. Tonight, I know itís fireproof, too.


In so many ways, this could have been so much worse. It wasnít. In so many ways, we could have been beaten and broken. We werenít. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope you and yours have as much to be thankful for as I do.

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