March 26, 2005,
Blast probe focuses on blaze a day before
THE CAUSE: Flash fires 'are not supposed to happen'
THE VICTIMS: All 15 of the dead have now been identified
By KEVIN MORAN, DINA CAPPIELLO and ALLAN TURNER
TEXAS CITY - Investigators seeking the cause of this week's BP refinery disaster turned their attention Friday to reports that a fire broke out at the plant's octane-enhancing unit less than 24 hours before it exploded.
But the significance of the flash fire, which ignited about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, is just another mystery facing state, federal and oil company investigators as they launch a probe that may take a year to complete. Thus far investigators have been restricted to the perimeter of the blast zone. They hope to be able to closely examine the wreckage this weekend.
BP spokesman Bill Stephens Friday said the flash fire erupted from a 3/4 -inch bleeder valve on a furnace line in the plant's isomerization unit. The blaze, blamed on a missing valve plug, was put out in seconds with a handheld fire extinguisher, he said. No one was injured.
At 1:20 p.m. Wednesday, the facility exploded with a force that rocked buildings in Galveston, killing 15 people and injuring more than 100. Authorities described the accident as the deadliest in the oil and chemical industry in more than a decade.
Questioned about the earlier flash fire, Stephens conceded that "fires are not supposed to happen," and pledged that its possible connection with the explosion will be scrutinized.
Stephen Selk, an investigations manager with U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said all refinery fires should be preventable. "To accept otherwise is fatalistic," he said.
John Bresland, another of the board's investigators, said a review of videotape of the explosion and a preliminary view of the wreckage from the blast zone's periphery suggest that leakage of flammable chemicals used in the octane-enhancing process might have been responsible for the deadly explosion.
Early in the investigation, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security dismissed the possibility that the explosion had resulted from a terrorist act. On Friday, Bresland expressed doubt that Tuesday's flash fire was linked to the later explosion, although he said that possibility would be investigated.
Hexane and pentane, flammable substances used in the isomerization unit, were possibly involved in the explosion, he said.
Bresland said his agency, which can make recommendations but has no enforcement powers, will report to the community through a public hearing in about six months. A final report will be made in about a year.
Meanwhile Friday, Galveston County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik announced his office has identified all 15 of Wednesday's dead. The process was completed sooner than expected because DNA analysis, a procedure employed in the most difficult identification cases, proved unnecessary.
Pustilnik said the remains were identified through fingerprints, dental and surgical records and other standard means within 12 hours.
Seena Simon, spokesman for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said seven of the injured remained in critical condition Friday. Three were hospitalized in good condition, and 13 others have been released.
BP America president Ross Pillari, who arrived in Texas City Thursday, has pledged his company's full support for the multilevel investigation.
"We will continue to cooperate with all local, state and federal authorities," he said. "We will also commit our full corporate resources to investigating the cause of the accident."
John Mogford, BP's group vice president for exploration and production, and Tim Holt, vice president of onshore U.S. production, arrived in Texas City on Friday to coordinate the in-house investigation. The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, which represents many refinery workers, also has expressed a desire to launch an investigation.
As investigative teams assembled, BP announced that it has completed its search-and-rescue operations within the blast zone. Monitoring for hazardous substances continues inside and outside the site. No asbestos has been detected, BP reported, nor has benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, or volatile organic compounds.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of such monitoring.
The massive 1,200-acre Texas City refinery, which was built in 1934 and is one of the oldest in the Houston area, employs 1,100 BP workers and 2,200 contract employees. The dead workers all had been contract employees of JE Merit or Fluor Daniel, working on an isomerization unit maintenance project. The explosion occurred as workers attempted to restart the facility after a two-week shutdown.
The presence of non-union contract workers continued to grow as an issue of contention Friday, with Allan Jamail, an official of Pipefitters Union Local 211, charging such workers lack proper training.
"The non-union worker's whole livelihood is depending on him satisfying his schedule-driven boss," Jamail said. "The schedule-driven boss is trying to please the schedule-driven contractor who is driven by plant management. Plant management is only going to be happy with the contractor if the contractor finishes the job on time."
But at least some oil and chemical workers responding to a Houston Chronicle solicitation to share their stories with readers disagreed.
"I am tired of hearing on the news that because these men and women were not in a union that safety was compromised," said one, who identified himself only as "KCB." "When you apply at a contractor for turnaround, no matter what position — welder, pipefitter, plant manager, etc., — the risks are well known.
" ... The men and women that work for contractors put their lives in danger daily to keep our country running."
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
March 29, 2005,
Counselors help survivors deal with grief
Many employees suffer emotionally in wake of tragedy
By L.M. SIXEL
When an explosion rocked the BP oil refinery in Texas City last week, killing 15 workers and injuring dozens more, they weren't the only ones affected.
Employees who didn't get a scratch, including those who weren't even on duty at the time, are suffering emotionally.
Like many organizations that have experienced a tragedy, BP brought in a team of grief counselors to handle the psychological side effects.
"You need to heal emotionally to deal with this just as you need to heal physically," said BP spokesman Bill Stephens. "The last thing we want is people to get distracted."
The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents the BP employees, has brought in a grief counselor who specializes in industrial accidents.
In the past several days, Allan McDougall estimates he has counseled about 25 BP workers.
"I get concerned when people say they're fine," said McDougall, who works for the United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh and is on the road two to three weeks a month counseling in the aftermath of workplace accidents.
"It will manifest later on in life" through alcoholism, prescription drugs, street drugs, high blood pressure, anxiety attacks and clinical depression, McDougall said.
"If you don't deal with it, it gets buried," he said.
Fifteen percent of companies offered grief counseling in 2004, up from 12 percent in 2002, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Many companies also offer grief counseling through their employee assistance programs that helps workers handle family and other non-work-related problems.
In 2004, 70 percent of organizations offered employee assistance programs, up from 68 percent in 2002, according to the human resource organization.
16 counselors on hand
At BP, grief counselors have been available since the first day of the accident for emergency responders, employees and contractors, Stephens said.
By Monday, 16 counselors were meeting with employees and contractors.
The refinery is encouraging its contractors and employees to meet with the experts either alone or in a group.
BP's management team will have a group session today with counselors, he said.
Stephens said he hasn't seen a counselor himself but he can see that coming soon.
"Like so many, I've been so busy I have delayed some of that grief, but sometimes you have to let go," he said.
McDougall said employees often feel guilt following an accident — that they could have prevented it or that they didn't say goodbye in the morning or that they had an argument with someone who was killed or injured. Sometimes they feel guilty because they're alive.
"Fatalities make people feel very reflective," said McDougall. "I encourage them to live today and enjoy the day and not live in the past or the future."
Initially, everyone seems to be on autopilot going through the interviews, the investigations and the funerals, he said. But some of the hardest times are three to four weeks after the accident, when things go back to "normal."
Part of his job is to tell workers what to expect — that they'll feel sad and may cry for no apparent reason or may have dreams in which they "can't stop the movie."
McDougall estimates that 30 percent of the BP workers he has counseled were not at the plant at the time of the explosion. It can awaken things that happened five years ago, such as a car accident.
A growing trend
There's a growing awareness among companies that grief counseling is the appropriate thing to do either following a catastrophe or when a long-term employee dies of natural causes, said Kenneth Collins, a workplace consultant on mental health issues in Orinda, Calif.
It's a natural, widespread response following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that employers need to deal with the mental health of their workers, Collins said.
People need to discuss the tragedy and process it, he said. Typically, their first thought is that it's unbelievable. It usually takes a day or two before the reality sinks in.
Group sessions can be an advantage, he said.
"It's very, very powerful to talk about a person and what that person meant to them," he said.
It's like a memorial service but more psychological than religious, he said.
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle