City Has History of Industrial Accidents

Longtime residents have been through it before: the explosions that shatter windows, damage eardrums and send them running for safety. Then comes the anguished wait to hear from loved ones.

On Wednesday, it happened again when a blast ripped through a BP refinery unit (search), with 14 believed dead and more than 100 injured.

"Welcome to life in Texas City," said Marion Taylor, 55, as she entered a convenience store shortly after the explosion.

It's a cruel irony here that the petrochemical industry, which employs a large share of the population and provides them with a rich tax base, also can be the source of injury and death.

Valerie Perez was among those standing outside the refinery fence, worried about her 18-year-old husband who works there and hadn't contacted her. Perez, who has a 3-month-old baby, said her husband always takes his cell phone to work. On Wednesday, he left it behind.

"I'm nervous," she said, holding back tears.

For Taylor, while such incidents upset her because of the effect on friends and family, "I've become accustomed to it. I was born here and pretty much, it happens from time to time."

In March 2004, an explosion at the same BP plant, located in the flatlands near the Gulf of Mexico about 35 miles southeast of Houston, injured no one.

But 58 years ago, Texas City (search) was the site of the nation's worst industrial accident. A freighter filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the harbor, killing or injuring a third of the city's population.

Within minutes of Wednesday's explosion in an octane-enhancing unit at the BP refinery that takes up 1,200 acres here, Texas City and regional emergency workers responded according to form.

Officials ordered a "shelter-in-place," meaning residents had to stay inside until authorities could be certain the air was safe. School children were ordered under their desks until the rumbling subsided. Parents were told their children were safe — and not to pick them up. The plant set up an emergency information hot line and offered a toll-free number for residents to call if they suffered property damage.

Not everyone obeyed: One panicked woman smashed a school window trying to get to his child inside.

The Salvation Army doled out food and drinks to an estimated 900 emergency workers called to the plant.

"They are burned out, really. Basically tired," said Salvation Army (search) worker Henry Garza Jr. "You can tell a couple of them were involved close enough to the explosion. ... They look pale and they just, like, are lucky they survived."

Less than a half-mile from the plant at Dee Best convenience store, Fabian Orellano was cleaning up the shattered glass from the rows of outdoor fluorescent lights that broke when they crashed to the ground in the blast.

"You know that living close to these plants is really dangerous, but you just don't think about it," he said.

At Mainland Medical Center, the closest medical facility to the plant, about 70 people huddled around the lobby, waiting for word on the injured being treated there.

No one ever really gets used to it, said Ron Oldham, a retired firefighter.

"When the house moves, it'll still spook you," he said.