No smoke or flames were visible when Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department District Chief Joe Davis arrived at a northeast Harris County foundry shortly before midnight in response to a "heavy box" – the highest level of emergency response. Only the twisted debris scattered hundreds of yards testified to the shattering blast that had ripped through the roof of the foundry minutes before.
"One of the things I noticed immediately upon arrival was that the lights that were at the top of the building were now on the ground," Davis said.
Davis noticed something else, too. A heavy, sweet smell was hanging in the air, he said. It was the smell of an incombustible, inert gas that is normally considered harmless. The sudden violent discharge of that gas killed eight foundry workers only three days before Christmas 1996.
There was no fire or chemical reaction, said Harris County Fire Marshal's Chief Investigator Bill Anders. The explosion was purely a release of stored energy escaping from a 90-foot-tall cylinder normally pressurized at 5,000 pounds per square inch.
Only three people of a 10-member crew working atop that cylinder survived the blast. One of those three survivors died before rescuers could evacuate him from the scene. To save as many as possible, the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department had to improvise on a grand scale, combining a ladder truck and high angle rescue gear with an overhead crane inside the demolished area of the factory. This was despite continuing uncertainty about possibilities for further explosions.
"My first question was 'Is there any further potential for additional explosions?'" he said. "They didn't even know why they had an explosion to begin with."
The foundry manufactures heavy-wall, seamless pipe used in power plants. To forge that pipe, the company uses a giant hydraulic press that "extrudes" heated metal in whatever shape desired. Nitrogen contained under massive pressure helps power the forging process, forcing fluid into the pistons that drive a ram inside the press. Pressurizing the system is the accumulator, a towering network of 16 nitrogen cylinders, rising up from the foundry's subbasement.
An evening crew began routine maintenance on one of the cylinders on Sunday, December 22. It involved removing 16 1⅞-inch bolts securing a 39-inch wide, 8-inch thick metal cap sealing the top of the cylinder. To empty the accumulator in preparation for such maintenance takes up to 16 hours. Pressure valves monitoring the nitrogen cylinders are located in the plant control room and at the base of the cylinder, but not at the top where the work was taking place.
In the process of removing the bolts, the socket on a pneumatic wrench broke, Davis said. By the time a replacement socket could be obtained, the shift ended. The maintenance job on the cylinder was left for the overnight shift to complete.
"Those guys on the evening shift were lucky fellows, or unlucky, depending on your way of looking at it," Davis said.
Work resumed on removing the bolts. Like the evening crew, the overnight crew apparently thought the nitrogen cylinder had been depressurized. The explosion that followed proved them tragically wrong. It shredded the sheet metal walls of the surrounding building and hurled debris across the exterior landscape. Injuries to the fatalities were so traumatic that identification in some cases could only be made using DNA tests.
"The valve that was on top of that cap weighted 900 pounds," Anders said. "That and the 3,000 pound cap were thrown 849 feet."
Cy-Fair V.F.D. District EMS Chief and Paramedic Mark Hudson, the department's emergency medical services supervisor, lives only three miles from the foundry. He heard the blast and, moments later, the first alarm sounded by fire dispatchers at 11:51 p.m.
"I was probably there in about seven minutes," Hudson said. "I knew something had happened. It rattled the windows very violently."
Hudson took command upon arriving at the plant, ordering the first rescue crew, Engine 3, into the building. He also had to deal with crowd control outside. Although less than 10 percent of the massive foundry complex was affected by the blast, stunned employees wandered about in confusion, Hudson said.
"They kept telling us it was the accumulator," Hudson said. "I had no idea what an accumulator was."
Davis, who lives six miles away from the foundry, arrived a few minutes later. Like Hudson, Davis found the scene to be chaotic.
"Initially, when you get there (at an emergency), there are a lot of things going through your mind," Davis said. "You don't know how quite to settle everybody. Everybody's trying to get your attention. I grabbed a factory employee and said 'Hey, stop! How many men did you have up there?' He said, 'We're not sure exactly.' I said 'I need for you to confirm how many people there were. Get the time cards. Talk to these other people.' There were a lot of people just milling around. I said 'Get these people out of here, get them secured somewhere where we can get a head count. Let's get going.'"
A "heavy box" emergency requires two district chiefs, four pumpers, a ladder truck and a rescue truck. Because this was dispatched as an explosion, it required only one district chief. An ambulance was also dispatched. As the other equipment arrived, Hudson remained as incident commander and Davis assumed interior-rescue command. Davis took charge of the rescue and ambulance crew already inside.
At least six levels of platforms and catwalks surround the huge foundry press and its accumulator. Much of that structural framework had been demolished by the blast. Black, sooty graphite used as a lubricant in the forging process covered the wreckage and body tissue littering the foundry's interior. Two confirmed "10-50s" – dead bodies – were found on the foundry floor. With help from a foundry employee who also serves as a fire department volunteer, Davis determined that at least eight more employees were working on the cylinder at the time of the blast.
"At about that time we were looking up and noticed that there were two men still moving up there," Davis said. "So I asked one worker 'How do I get up there? Do they have elevators?' He said "The elevators are down because there is no electricity.'"
The only way to reach the survivors was to climb straight up using ladders connecting each level. Davis asked the paramedic off Ambulance 9, Greg Lingner, to go with him.
"I told him 'Understand, there may be a potential for additional explosions that could put you in jeopardy up there,'" Davis said. "'This is a voluntary fire department but you need to volunteer again.'"
Lingner said yes. It was his first shift on the ambulance as the paramedic in charge. During the long, hard climb through the soot and twisted metal, the rescuers found three more fatalities. The severity of the injuries left no chance they could be alive. The rescuers continued to climb. Long before reaching the survivors Davis realized that bringing rescue equipment up by the same route would be impossible. The ladders were encased by a tight circular safety cage to prevent falling.
"It was a tight squeeze," Davis said. "There was barely enough room for the radio and flashlight in my pockets."
The rescuers found the survivors lying on a 30-inch-wide catwalk about 15 feet below where the maintenance crew had been working. One survivor was Santiago "Jimmy" Galindo, the crew supervisor and 30-year veteran with the foundry. The other was employee Gregory Dargin, an employee with the foundry for only two weeks. Both had been painted black by the graphite. Also, both were in shock, suffering loss of hearing from the sudden volume of the explosion, Davis said.
Assessing the difficulty of getting rescue equipment to their position, Davis asked two more rescue personnel off Rescue 3, Erich Burrer and Faron Zawacki, to make the climb. A small rope brought up by one of the rescuers was, in turn, used to haul up bags filled harnesses, pulleys and more rope. The rescuers then set up a pulley system to bring up medical equipment from Level 2, the level where the press' control room is located. Two foundry employees also made the climb to assist their injured co-workers.
Outside, Cy-Fair Fire Chief J.C. Marshall arrived and took charge of the scene. Davis requested that Hudson join the rescuers with the injured men on the catwalk.
"I felt that I needed Mark's expertise as a paramedic in the phase of the operation when it was most critical," Davis said.
Meanwhile, Marshall advised the media and relatives of what had happened and what was being done.
"Once I realized the magnitude of damage, injuries and death, I communicated with the media that was outside the front gate," Marshall said. "I didn't give them a lot other than "We're here and there's been some type of explosion. We may have had casualties.' I was just trying to make them feel like part of what was going on. If you don't tell the media, they're going to come up with something anyhow. You might as well be as fair with them as you can because, hey, they could be your ally."
More than media coverage, the ally the rescuers most needed inside the foundry was Cy-Fair's Simon LTI 100-foot platform ladder truck. Fitting the truck inside the huge building was not as much of a problem as the lack of a solid foundation to park it on. The press and accumulator sit in a subbasement of the foundry building, rising up through a large hole in the floor at ground level. By radio, Davis told Marshall he did not think the metal grating covering much of that hole would support the heavy ladder truck's outriggers.
"I communicated with Fire Chief Marshall my feelings and what were my needs and he set out to make it work," Davis said.
Marshall ordered that enough debris be moved to give the ladder truck room. With only three inches to spare on either side, the truck squeezed between the foundry equipment until it was nearly 100 feet inside, almost reaching the center of the building. The outriggers were clear of the metal grating but, even with the ladder fully extended, the truck was still well short of reaching the injured. Step two of Marshall's plan brought into play an overhead crane mounted on rails near the level where Davis and the rescuers were working.
"The overhead crane had been out of service for maintenance prior to the explosion," Davis said. "(Company officials) were able to get an electrician and a supervisor in there to hook up the power so we could pass the overhead crane from where we were to the ladder truck."
The rescuers stabilized the two survivors and placed them in stokes baskets. To reach the crane, the rescuers had to carry the survivors across 30 feet of narrow catwalks that were difficult to maneuver and, worse, damaged by the blast. With the stokes baskets placed atop it, the crane was moved nearly 100 yards to a point where the survivors could be transferred to the extended ladder, Davis said. From there, they were lowered to the ground level and transferred to Hermann Hospital by LifeFlight helicopter.
With two people still alive thanks to their efforts, the rescuers spotted a third survivor in a heavily damaged area that was still higher above the foundry floor. This area had taken the full brunt of the explosion. Davis said damage was so severe he worried about the stability of the platform supporting the injured worker.
Hudson and Burrer moved up the damaged stairway to the upper level platform. An overhead crane used at that level swung freely in the high wind. Severed air lines whipped about nearby and had to be shut down before rescuers could reach the worker.
The rescue crew "packaged" the badly injured worker for transfer to the crane and then the ladder. Despite surviving several hours after the blast, the injured man died before he could be lowered to the ground.
"It really hit home because we had the third victim, we found him alive, but by the time we could get down we lost him," Chief Marshall said. "I told the firefighters 'Hey, the odds were against us before we got here. Look at the two men you saved.'"
With a note of frustration over being unable to save the third worker, the rescue operation continued. A separate team of firefighters made a complete sweep of the foundry's upper levels but found no further survivors. At Marshall's request, a LifeFlight helicopter checked what was left of the foundry roof. The helicopter crew spotted two more bodies.
Of the eight fatalities eventually recovered, five had each worked more than 28 years for the foundry. Three of the dead had been with the company one month or less.
Given the traumatic circumstances of the foundry explosion, rescuers were given the option of meeting with members of the Bluebonnet Crisis Intervention Team, a volunteer group of firefighters, law officers and EMTs on site who provided "stress debriefings" to help emergency personnel deal with any anxiety resulting from handling such a tragedy.
Cy-Fair V.F.D. covers a combination of residential neighborhoods and industrial areas across a suburban Houston region of about 185 square miles. The department's 330 members answered about 10,300 calls in 1996. Yet, in Marshall, Hudson or Davis' combined experience of 36 years with the Cy-Fair V.F.D., little rivals the impact of the foundry disaster.
On a cold and rainy day in January, members of the Cy-Fair V.F.D. joined with nearly 500 others attending a Sunday memorial service at Metropolitan Baptist Church organized by the foundry for the explosion victims. The memorial paid tribute to the fallen men and gave the rescuers a sense of closure, Davis said.
The Rev. Sal Sberna, quoted in the Houston Chronicle, said the community was grieving with the families of the dead.
"Bad things happen all the time to good people, hard-working people," he said. "The suffering is left for us to deal with … All of us carry those scars."
- Improvise, improvise, improvise. With an eye on safety, the firefighters maximized every resource at their disposal to affect the speedy rescue of the survivors. Like Ed Harris said in "Apollo 13" – "I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do."
- Having emergency planning information available by computer in the cab of every fire truck can eliminate the confusing situation of rounding up the scattered plant officials to find out essentials about the plant.
- Lockout/tagout seems like such a simple concept. Lockout means placing a locking device on equipment during maintenance so it cannot be operated until the lockout device is removed. Tagout is the placement of an attachable tag on the locking device to indicate that the equipment may not be operated until that tag is removed. And yet people are still being injured and killed because this safety essential is ignored or deliberately circumvented.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.