Two people have died following a large explosion at a manufacturing facility in northwest Houston early Friday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo confirmed Friday morning.
The explosion, which occurred around 4:30 a.m. at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing facility, heavily damaged nearby buildings and homes, left rubble scattered in the area and was felt miles away.
Eighteen people have gone to local emergency rooms, reporting minor injuries from the blast, including breathing problems and cuts, according to the Houston Fire Department. Another 48 people have checked into a Red Cross shelter.
Officials believe the two victims to be male Hispanic employees, but the bodies haven’t been identified yet. Acevedo said there is no evidence that the explosion was intentional, but they will conduct a criminal investigation as part of the process with federal support from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Damage to the surrounding neighborhoods
Domingo Duron, who lives in the area, told Houston Public Media he woke up to the sound of the explosion. "I heard explosions, stuff on top of me. I looked out the window and saw a fire going up in the air. When I realized what was going on, I realized my roommates were in the other room and I couldn't get to them because stuff was everywhere,” he said. “I hollered at them and tried to get everybody and make sure they were okay."
He said he suffered minor injuries from broken glass. "I thought it was war,” he said. “Thank God we're still alive, but the house is demolished. I'm cut up all over from the glass."
Officials say there are about 200 homes in the area surrounding the explosion, which occurred near 4500 Gessner Road, north of Clay. “We've assessed between 180, 190 [homes] at this point. The majority of those have received some sort of damage,” said Fire Chief Samuel Peña. “The ones that are more proximal to the area of the blast are damaged heavily, some of them off the foundation.”
He said they are continuing to check the homes for structural stability. Many have broken windows, alongside damage to garages, walls and roofs.
"Everything in mine is blown, every door, every window, front door, back door,” said Jan Sinclair, whose home is on nearby Stanford Court. She told Houston Public Media she was knocked out of bed by the force of the blast.
"My cat went flying," said Sinclair. "My brain just went, I've got to get out of here and I got out."
Another nearby resident, Alberto O’Connor, said his ceiling caved in when the explosion occurred. "I had my area I sleep in positioned next to the windows. If it was centered in the room, it would probably have been it for me when the ceiling caved in,” he said. “I was spared by the hand of God. I had a few shards of glass hit me, but I'm here and feel privileged to be here."
Authorities continue to tell nearby residents to avoid the area. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD has closed Bane Elementary and Dean Middle School. Spring Branch ISD says they’re anticipating transportation delays but otherwise are planning for a normal school day. Both districts say they’ll keep students inside. Houston ISD will be operating as normal.
Ground zero from today's explosion. Please keep our community in your prayers. #RelationalPolicing pic.twitter.com/B3ZjKy5d7F
— Chief Art Acevedo (@ArtAcevedo) January 24, 2020
Air quality tests by the Health Department continue to show no cause for concern, according to officials.
Propylene was released into the air in the aftermath of the explosion. As of 9:30 am, Peña said they were able to enter the building and secure the leak.
“We had a 2,000-gallon tank of propylene. That has been secured, and so we don't have any active leak at this moment,” he told reporters.
Propylene is a colorless 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.
"It is saddening and infuriating to see more people die because of another chemical explosion in the Houston area,” Elena Craft, the senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund said in a press release. “These deadly tragedies cannot be the new normal in a city and region where industrial threats abound. Government at all levels must act to ensure the health and safety of workers and the people living near these facilities, and that starts by holding industry accountable and strengthening safeguards. Enough is enough."
The Houston area has seen a series of explosions over the past year. Last July, an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown left more than dozen people with minor injuries and put nearby residents under a shelter-in-place advisory for three hours.
In November, two blasts in the coastal city of Port Neches shattered windows and ripped the doors from nearby homes.
Jen Rice contributed to this story.
This is a continuing story that will be updated as more details emerge.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Port Neches explosion occurred in November.