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Ganado man relives 2005 Formosa plant explosion

By Jessica Priest
July 6, 2013 at 2:06 a.m.


DID YOU KNOW?

Another 1,100 Port Lavaca residents sued Formosa and its business partners not long after the 2005 explosion.

They claimed the plant emitted noxious gases that made living in their homes unbearable.

Formosa argued the plaintiffs purchased their houses knowing the risks.

Attorneys could not reach many of them because they moved away and did not leave forwarding addresses.

Eventually, Formosa, fed up with the slow-moving pace of the litigation, reminded the presiding judge of a Texas Supreme Court rule that stipulates large tort cases should be disposed of in 18 months.

Seeing no progress, the judge dismissed the case.

SOURCE: CALHOUN COUNTY DISTRICT CLERK'S OFFICE

THE INJURED

The May 2 Formosa flash fire sent 14 people to the hospital.

The most severely injured were Steven Vasquez, Jose Campos and Chris Doehrman.

Vasquez and Campos, 33, of Port Lavaca, were flown by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute. Doctors discharged Vasquez on July 2 and Campos on May 15, according to hospital spokeswoman Kathryn Klein.

Doehrman was treated at San Antonio Military Medical Center in San Antonio. His condition was not available Friday.

GANADO - Eddie Guajardo chats with his son about run-of-the-mill things.

Andrew Guajardo, a 20-year-old TEPSCO worker, is usually on his lunch break at the Formosa Plastics Corp. plant in Point Comfort when he decides to dial the familiar 10 digits.

But the May 2 conversation suddenly becomes less routine.

"Oh my God," Andrew says, gasping. "The plant just exploded. I've got to call you back."

The line goes dead.

Pacing inside his blue, one-story Ganado home, Eddie Guajardo's fingers fly across the phone's tiny keypad.

"Son, you need to tell me right now where you're at and if you're OK because you're going to make me have a heart attack," he texts.

A few agonizing hours later, he learns Andrew is unscathed.

His son escaped a fate he did not at the same plant eight years ago.

Guajardo was also a TEPSCO worker at Formosa then.

Charged with cleaning the facility's rusty pipes for an agreeable $16 an hour, he never imagined a much larger explosion there would one day disable him or that he would sue the leading plastic producer because of it.

Guajardo, now 43, and seven others lost a civil case against Formosa in 2009. More than 40 of his co-plaintiffs, all of whom also allege Formosa was negligent, have yet to have their day in court.

Now, after a fire alarm sounded a second time for a flash fire May 2, area attorneys expect Formosa to field even more complaints.

What happened then

Eddie Guajardo almost swallowed his cigarette when he saw it.

A ball of fire leapt into the air the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2005, when he, too, was on a break.

The fire originated from Formosa's Olefins 2 unit, just a football field away.

That's where the "big shots" worked.

Seconds later, the haggard-looking bunch emerged and booked it to Gate 6.

The horns hadn't blown yet to signal danger, but Guajardo needed only see their faces.

He and his foreman ran after them only to be ushered into a long, single file line facing state Highway 35. Each time another explosion shook the ground beneath them, patience waned, and the exit seemed farther away.

"To hell with this," Guajardo said, echoing the thoughts of many in the crowd.

Everyone improvised, going over and even under a 7-foot tall chain-link fence.

It was an unusual sight, Guajardo said, as even the biggest, burliest men got pushed aside in the chaos.

He clawed his way to the top of the structure, but it buckled under their tremendous weight and hurled him to the ground.

"I landed on my back and when I got up, I heard a loud 'pop!'" Guajardo said, but adrenaline, along with the faces of the nine children he supports, kicked in.

He ignored the pain for months because he did not have insurance and could not afford to miss a day of work.

Doctors would later find that one spill broke Guajardo's tailbone so severely that several surgeries were required to fix it.

Guajardo warned those involved in the May 2 fire who are thinking about litigation not to make his mistake. Document everything.

"Don't try to be macho and wait," he said, citing that Formosa painted him as untruthful before a jury because he did not mention his back injury during several emergency room visits.

He was also bitter because his 100 percent disability status was excluded from evidence. That and being lumped with a group of strangers lessened his chances of winning, he said.

"There was one dude who said he was selling tacos at the gate. I don't know if he was, and I believe they (Formosa) even proved he wasn't there," Guajardo said. "We all had to pay for it."

Past and future litigation

Fighting Formosa today will still be an uphill battle because in the mid-2000s, Texas limited remedies employees may seek from bosses who subscribe to the Workers' Compensation Act, said Chuck Cole, a Victoria attorney who has two clients involved in the May 2 incident considering their options.

Stephen Smith, a partner at a Houston law firm that represented Guajardo, knew back in 2009 that Texas' conservative Legislature protects big business, but he did not consider his efforts futile.

Businesses such as British Petroleum only improve safety measures after someone insists they do so. One can use the judicial system to enact change, he said.

"It's always a difficult thing when you're suing your employer, and likewise, it's difficult when you're suing the company that your employer has its work with," Smith said. "But when people are injured seriously, they need someone who will stand up for them."

Formosa attorney William Seerden, of Victoria, anticipated lawsuits after the most recent fire.

He did not know why the cases for the plaintiffs involved in the 2005 fires were still pending, but several mediation attempts failed. What is discussed in a mediation is confidential.

"They can proceed however they want to proceed, and we'll try the case if they ever want to try it," Seerden said.

Smith, meanwhile, could only speculate about why a jury sided with Formosa but guessed, like Guajardo, that excluded evidence would have offered the jury a clearer picture.

The litigation is tied up probably because one of Formosa's co-defendants declared bankruptcy, said Judge Kemper Stephen Williams, who presides over the case.

Lost identity

Guajardo recently watched his two granddaughters, Makenzie, 2, and Cameron, 8, of Ganado, something he does often for a daughter who doubles as his landlord.

Babysitting, he thinks, is really all he's good for now. And he's not sure he's even good at it.

The girls, like most children their age, could not sit still for much longer than a few minutes.

They squealed, tossed aside dolls and tugged at an exhausted Guajardo's shirt sleeves.

When the house is empty and a television spewing the latest soap opera is his only company, time crawls by.

Guajardo never finished high school. He figured he was set at 18 when he landed a job sweeping floors at another chemical plant in Freeport. Working with his hands was all he knew how to do - it was all his father and his grandfather knew how to do.

Now he and his wife, who works part time at an assisted living facility, scrape by each month with $900 from the state. About $450 is taken out of his check for child support backpay.

Sometimes, Guajardo will scold himself for getting too accustomed to the air conditioning and pick up litter in and around his yard just to feel useful. He doesn't last long because the medication he takes for ailments that include diabetes, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia and arthritis make him especially vulnerable to the sun.

"It's pitiful, really. I feel like I'm slowly deteriorating," Guajardo said. "I wish they would have believed me."

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