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At Least 14 Feared Dead in Blast at Oil Refinery

Texas BP Plant Had Twice Been Fined for Federal Safety Violations in 2004

By Pam Easton
Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A08

TEXAS CITY, Tex., March 23 -- An explosion rocked a BP oil refinery Wednesday, injuring more than 100 people and sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky in a blast so thunderous it could be felt for miles. At least 14 people were feared dead.

Workers were searching through rubble for survivors or bodies Wednesday night. The cause of the blast was not immediately known. Most of the injured suffered broken bones, cuts, concussions and other injuries.

Texas City firefighters pour water on a smoldering unit at the BP refinery. (Brett Coomer -- Houston Chronicle Via AP)

Site director Don Parus said BP was waiting on an official confirmation of the death toll from the medical examiner's office, but he added, "It's my deep regret that we believe we have 14 losses of life."

The blast left a gaping hole in the earth, mangled nearby offices, and covered cars and trucks in an employee parking lot with ash and chunks of charred metal. Witnesses said the blast was felt as far away as five miles.

Charles Gregory said he and several co-workers were inside a trailer getting ready to clean a tank when the floor started rumbling about 1:30 p.m.

"It was real scary," he said. "Have you ever heard the thunder real loud? It was like 10 times that."

The explosion occurred in a part of the plant used to boost the octane level of gasoline. BP spokeswoman Annie Smith said terrorism "is not a primary focus of our investigation."

Federal investigators had been dispatched, said Daniel Horowitz, director of public affairs for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Retired firefighter Wenceslado de la Cerda, 50, said the blast shook the ground, rattled windows and knocked ceiling panels to the floor.

"Basically, it was one big boom," he said. "It's a shame that people have to get killed and hurt trying to make a dollar in these plants, but that's part of reality."

The plant in Texas City, about 35 miles southeast of Houston, sprawls across 1,200 acres with 30 refinery units. About 433,000 barrels of crude oil are processed a day, producing 3 percent of the U.S. supply. The plant employs about 1,800 people.

Gasoline prices could rise slightly because of the explosion. Gasoline futures were unchanged at $1.5749 on the New York Mercantile Exchange but rose nearly 2 cents in late trading on news of the explosion.

A refinery explosion forced the evacuation of the plant for several hours in March 2004. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the refinery $63,000 for safety violations, including problems with its emergency shutdown system and employee training.

OSHA also fined the refinery after two employees were burned to death by superheated water in September.

Texas City is the site of the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. In 1947, a fire aboard a ship at the Texas City docks triggered an explosion that killed 576 people and left fires burning in the city for days.

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