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At least two people were killed early Friday after a manufacturing plant in west Houston exploded, sending a shock wave felt by residents for miles.
The blast — at 4:30 a.m. at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing on the 4500 block of Gessner Road — also left a resident hospitalized, scattered debris across half a mile, and damaged an estimated 200 nearby homes.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said terrorism is not suspected in the incident. Authorities have begun a criminal investigation, which Acevedo said is protocol. Even as they grappled with containing the scene, authorities also warned that anyone caught looting would be prosecuted harshly.
“This is a disaster area right now,” Acevedo said, warning that looters would be prosecuted harshly. “Do not get caught looting, it will not be a slap on the wrist.”
A hazardous materials team was on site investigating.
In a news conference at about 9:30 a.m., city officials said the blast had damaged some 200 homes and businesses. The shockwave was so strong it knocked some structures off their foundations, they said, and damaged many others.
“The hazard has been contained, we have secured the leak from the propylene and we have no indications (of problems) with air quality at this time,” Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña.
No evacuation has been issued, but police have urged commuters to avoid a mile-long hot zone that borders Genard and Clay roads to the north and south and Gessner Road and Steffani Lane Lane to the east and west.
Peña said in an interview that one patient had been transported to a hospital and that firefighters were assessing others. Firefighters spent hours battling the blaze and working to shut off propylene leaking inside the warehouse.
Records show Watson Grinding and Manufacturing ran afoul of federal regulators in 2013, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company about $8,000 in 2013 for violations related to the control of hazardous energy and wiring problems. It was inspected again in 2015 and no violations were found.
The company’s most recent chemical inventory filed with the federal government in 2015 only listed liquid oxygen onsite. However, the Environmental Protection Agency only requires the disclosure of certain chemicals stored in quantities above specific thresholds.
The explosion forced two Cy-Fair ISD schools, Bane Elementary School and Dean Middle School, to close for the day, according to district officials. Spring Branch ISD will remain open, but keep students inside due to air quality concerns.
Across the neighborhood surrounding the warehouse, local business owners and residents spent the morning taking stock of the blast, which damaged numerous homes in the area.
The shockwave tore doors from their hinges; sent sheetrock tumbling off walls; ripped ceiling fans, screens and blinds from their fastenings; shattered windows, and left debris strewn across roads half-a-mile from the site of the explosion.
Several windows were broken out at a Circle K store and Valero gas station at the northeast corner of Gessner and Clay, just south of the explosion site. Around 8 a.m., maintenance workers were using yellow caution tape to block off to block off the site.
“They want us to shut everything down because we’re going to have to remove glass and they don’t want anyone hurt,” said Jorge Esparza who works in facilities maintenance for Circle K.
Scott Huckabee, a volunteer firefighter from the Lake Livingston area arrived near the site around 7:20 a.m.
“There’s multiple commercial buildings damaged, multiple homes damaged. We’ve got insulation blown half a mile from the explosion site,” he said from the Circle K parking lot at the northeast corner of Clay and Gessner.l, just south of the explosion site.
Huckabee, who works for Frontier Services Group, a fire and water mitigation and reconstruction company, said he would be assisting residents and businesses secure their properties.
“We’ll be boarding up windows and making sure people don’t go in and start looting,” he said.
Maria Zunida, who lives on Tulina way, near the plant, was fast asleep when a loud boom woke her up around 4:30 a.m. She saw a bright light, and then the windows broke and the ceiling crashed down onto her and her husband.
“I thought somebody attacked us,” she said.
SEE IT FOR YOURSELF: Doorbell camera video captures moment of intense explosion in west Houston
She rushed to her kids’ room, and hustled them outside. Luckily, no one was hurt.
When Alondra Maldanado heard the blast, she thought the neighborhood had been hit with a bomb.
Like many others, she’d been fast asleep when the blast hit. She ran into her parents’ room, “freaking out.”
“It’s scary, I was shook because I literally always walk through there,” she said. “And my sister, she works in the mornings, so sometimes she walks through there to get to the Metro (bus stop). I imagined her walking and something happened to her. But thank God she didn’t work today.”
Nancy Sarnoff, Perla Trevizo, Olivia Tallet, Matt Dempsey and Susan Carroll contributed to this story.
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