Despite Dangers, City's Residents Stay Put

The rotten-egg smell from the refineries, the chemical haze, the constant hiss that sounds like an idling jet plane, the explosions and fires — they are part of life in Texas City (search).

And people who live here say they are not inclined to move out, not even after Wednesday's thunderous blast at a BP (search) refinery that killed 15 people and injured at least 100 in the nation's deadliest and gas and chemical industry accident in 15 years.

This is, after all, the site of the deadliest industrial disaster in U.S. history, a waterfront explosion that killed 576 people in 1947.

"Texas City is a great place," James Froebel, who escorts tour groups around town, said Thursday.

An explosion at the same refinery in March 2004 injured no one, but six months later, two workers were killed there after being burned by superheated water.

"I said at one time I'd never stay here," said Froebel, 72, who retired in 1992 from a Monsanto (search) chemical plant. "I've stayed."

It is hard to ignore the danger signs throughout this town of 40,000, situated along Galveston Bay about 35 miles southeast of Houston. Along the roads, signs read "Hazardous cargo." Fences in industrial areas read: "To report an incident, call..." and list a phone number.

Warning sirens mounted atop utility poles dot many of the streets. And some residents still reminisce about going through "the big one."

James Curl, 81, is one of them. He was a young man in 1947 when two ships loaded with ammonia nitrite fertilizer exploded, killing 576 people and injuring 5,000.

That eruption is marked by historical plaques around town, including the remains of a 15-foot propeller from one of the ships that serves as a memorial at the port. What became known as The Texas City Disaster also encompasses an entire section of the city's museum, where pieces of debris are on display.

"I've been through all this since 1932," said Curl, whose father helped build the plant that is now BP. "I've never left town."

He remembered one explosion several years ago that sent sheet metal flying over his single-story brick house two blocks from the refinery.

"It don't scare me," Curl said. "I'm hard to scare."

Despite the fierce storms that roll in from the Gulf of Mexico and the occasional explosions and leaking fumes from the petrochemical industry that dominates Texas City, people here say they really wouldn't rather be anywhere else.

Ben Johnston works part time delivering industrial soap to the BP plant, two blocks from the house on 2nd Avenue where he raised his family and has lived for decades. He used to work as a welder at the Union Carbide plant.

On Thursday, he was wearing an industry cap that proclaimed "500,000 safe man hours." His lawn mower drowned out the hiss from the refinery.

"I've worked in the industry all my life. I don't even hear that," he said. "That's just the way it is. You get used to it. There are booms. They have fires. By the nature of what you're doing, it's dangerous.

"But I'll tell you, they're not careless. We did have a terrible fire, but it is a safe industry. I'll go back Monday without fear."

Texas City started out as Shoal Point. Among its first inhabitants in the mid-1800s was a captain who served with the pirate Jean Lafitte. Toward the end of the century, businessmen from Duluth, Minn., including brothers Jacob and Henry Myers, acquired 10,000 acres to develop a port and industrial center.

Local legend has it that the Myers did not think Shoal Point would sound like a good place for business, so they called it Texas City, figuring the name would be like New York City. A Texas City post office was established in 1893. A ship channel was dug and Texas City, like adjacent Galveston, thrived as a cotton and wheat port.

When southeastern Texas became a hub for the infant oil and petrochemical business, Texas City was prepared for the transition from agriculture to industry.

Joe Davila, who was also around for the 1947 explosion, said he believes the threats to him and his family are "part of living in an industrial area." He recently retired after driving a chemical transport truck for 42 years.

"The wages are good and there's lots of work if you want to work in the chemical industry," said Davila, who now sells antiques downtown. "Hurricanes, chemical plant explosions, you just learn to live with it."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 03-24-05 1518EST