Two killed, 20 injured in warehouse explosion

HOUSTON (AP) — A massive explosion on Friday levelled a warehouse in Houston, killing two workers, damaging nearby buildings and homes and rousing frightened residents from their sleep miles away, authorities said.

The explosion happened about 4.30am inside a building at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, which makes valves and provides thermal-spray coatings for equipment in various industries, authorities said.

The building was reduced to burning rubble and debris, and some of the surrounding buildings suffered heavy damage to parts of their walls and roofs.

Killed were employees Frank Flores and Gerardo Castorena, Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a Friday evening news conference. The two had arrived at their workplace early and were using its fitness gym when the blast happened, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Authorities believed there were no other fatalities but another 20 people were injured, two other warehouse workers and 18 others from neighbouring homes and businesses, Turner said.

None of the injuries were thought to be life-threatening.

Acevedo had said earlier that a family member of one of those killed was a United States (US) Marine currently training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and called on the Marines to let the man return to Houston.

Local and federal officials will be at the scene for the next three to four days working through the ruins to determine what caused the explosion, Acevedo said.

Smoke fills the sky after a massive explosion rocks west Houston. PHOTOS: AP
Maria Hernandez and her son, Alejandro Ambriz, 10, stand by the kitchen where the ceiling collapsed in their home, just one street east where an explosion occurred

Authorities don’t believe the explosion was intentional though a criminal investigation is underway, he said. Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said hazardous materials crews have secured the valve on a 2,000-gallon tank of propylene that had been leaking.

Propylene is a colourless gas used to produce chemicals in plastics, synthetic rubber and gasoline. It is highly flammable and can explode in a fire. People exposed to propylene can become dizzy and light-headed, and the gas can also cause liver damage.

Nearby homes sustained significant damage. Some were knocked off their foundations.

A volunteer with the Houston office of the American Red Cross Manny Jawa said his agency had helped about 100 people who came to an evacuation shelter that had been set up around 6am on Friday at a church near the blast site.

The shelter offered residents food and water and information about help they could receive.Officials stated that they planned to open an overnight shelter at a different church for residents who had been displaced from their homes and had nowhere else to go.

The blast shook other buildings, with reports on Twitter of a boom felt across the city. Pena said there were no reports of hazardous air quality, based on monitoring done by a hazardous materials team.

The family-owned business manufactures valves and provides thermal-spray coatings for equipment used in the chemical, mining, petroleum and aerospace industries, among others, according to its website.

In a statement on Friday night, Western Grinding said it is “working diligently to address the situation and cooperating with the federal, state and local authorities investigating the accident”.

The statement also said: “Our hearts go out to the families and businesses impacted by this incident and to our community.” “At this time our immediate concern is the safety and well-being of everyone in the area and our employees.”

About 90,000 people live within 4.8 kilometres of the company, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Houston police tweeted that officers were blocking off streets, but no evacuation was ordered. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said first responders checked on residents of nearby homes. Turner wrote on Twitter that there was no hazard in the air “from all indications”, but that authorities continued to monitor.