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Formosa flash fire injures 14 workers (Video)

By Melissa Crowe , Jessica Priest
May 2, 2013 at 12:02 a.m.
Updated May 3, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.


About the company

Founded in 1978, Formosa Plastics Corp. is a supplier of plastic resins and petrochemicals. A privately held company headquartered in Livingston, N.J., the company reports annual revenues of more than $5 billion.

Formosa operates three chemical manufacturing subsidiaries, including plants in Delaware City, Del., Baton Rouge, La., and Point Comfort.

The Point Comfort site consists of 13 production units and a variety of support facilities at its 1,600-acre petrochemical complex. The company notes on its website that it recently achieving 3 million man-hours without a lost-time injury.

Source: Formosa company website

POINT COMFORT - As emergency workers raced to the Formosa Plastics plant Thursday, many thought about a massive blaze there in 2005.

David Johnson, captain of the Port Lavaca Fire Department, drove the six miles to the plant with his crew, much like he did eight years ago.

"I was just thinking that I didn't want the same thing happening as the last explosion," Johnson said. "I looked at my guys and said, 'We're coming home tonight.'"

The fire began about 1:30 p.m. and was confined to the polyethylene No. 1 production unit, said Bill Harvey, Formosa communications manager. At a 4 p.m. news briefing, Harvey said nine people were injured. However, that number increased by the evening to 14 people, most of whom were treated for injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to serious burns.

Most of the injured had not been identified by late Thursday, but friends and family identified six of the workers.

Two injured workers were airlifted to Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center in Houston. Steven Vasquez was listed in critical condition in the intensive care burn unit. Jose Campos was listed in serious condition in the same burn unit, a hospital spokesman said.

Victoria Advocate employee Rachel Doehrman said her father-in-law, Chris Doehrman, suffered serious injuries, but he was going to be OK.

"It's going to be a lengthy process because of the levels of burns," she said. "When it's one of your own, it's different."

Chris Doehrman was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for burns.

Raul Salazar was at Citizens Medical Center in an intensive care unit and listed in stable condition.

Jacob Garcia was listed in stable condition in the intensive care unit at Citizens Medical Center, said a hospital spokeswoman.

Corky Vickery was treated at Citizens and released.

Polyethylene is one of the most common plastics and is used to make bags, film, piping and more, according to a plastics database.

Formosa's in-house fire department extinguished the flames within 10 minutes, Harvey said.

Of the plant's 2,300 employees, 135 are certified firefighters who work dual roles.

Several firefighters told Johnson there was a white vapor cloud, "then it just flashed like a ball of fire."

Harvey would not specify whether the injured were contract workers or plant employees.

"Everyone was accounted for," he said, and no other plant units were evacuated.

Calhoun County Sheriff's Office, Calhoun EMS, a Calhoun constable and fire departments from Point Comfort, Port Alto and Port Lavaca responded to the fire, said Sheriff George Aleman.

First responders were ready because two weeks ago they discussed mutual aid with area industrial plants, Aleman said.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the cause of the fire.

Harvey said the investigation and the in-house review could take months to complete.

Harvey acknowledged that the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West also was still on people's minds Thursday.

"There are lessons to be learned from any kind of incident," he said of the West explosion. "It was heart-breaking for that community."

Thursday's fire was not as severe as the one in 2005, although 16 people were also injured in that fire.

The scale of Thursday's fire at Formosa was considerably smaller than the 2005 blaze, which burned for five days.

The flames were out Thursday before firefighters arrived, Johnson said, but he knows it could have played out differently.

"I'm just glad it didn't - for the safety of the plant workers and the citizens," he said.

Firefighters didn't see flames, but they saw the damage. They helped prepare victims to be taken to hospitals and guided two helicopters for landing.

At the end of the day, it came down to something greater than luck, he said.

"As long as we know we left it all on the table and we know we did all we could do, as long as everyone comes home at night, it's a job well done."

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