HOUSTON (CN) – Two people were killed when a propylene tank exploded in a Houston machine shop’s warehouse early Friday and damaged hundreds of homes.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo confirmed the fatalities at a news conference Friday morning following the blast at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing
The business is across the street from a residential neighborhood and people whose homes were damaged said the explosion around 4:30 a.m. felt like an earthquake or a tornado.
Watson Grinding’s warehouse was flattened with smoke smoldering around 8 a.m. as if it had been hit by a bomb. Authorities have closed the streets around the business.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña told reporters on scene that air monitoring had not detected hazardous levels of air pollutants and that propylene dissipates into the air.
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District announced around 8 a.m. it had closed an elementary school and a middle school due to the explosion and it is keeping students at its other schools indoors because of air-quality concerns.
Watson Grinding’s business, which manufactures valves for the oil and gas industry, is in the Spring Branch district of Houston.
The Spring Branch Independent School District said it is not closing any of its 36 schools, but will also be keeping students in doors.
“In an abundance of caution, please limit outside exposure to your students on the way to school. Houston Fire Dept. has stated the fumes from the Gessner explosion earlier this morning are non- toxic. We plan for a safe and regular school day for all SBISD schools,” the district said in a statement.
Local media reported that some residents in the blast zone were trying to board up their shattered windows to keep out looters, but firefighters told those whose homes sustained extensive damage they need to go.
The Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said it has sent agents to the site to help Houston firefighters with the explosion investigation.
Chemical-fueled disasters are becoming a regular occurrence in southeast Texas.
A chemical processing unit exploded at a Beaumont-area refinery on Nov. 27 and more than 50,000 people were ordered to evacuate.
A worker was killed by another explosion at a chemical plant, a northeast Houston suburb, in April.
That tragedy followed a fire in March at a plant in Deer Park, 21 miles east of downtown Houston, which engulfed 11 chemical storage tanks and burned for several days before firefighters put it out by dousing it with foam.
The benzene-laced foam ran off into the Houston Ship Channel and the U.S. Coast Guard closed part of the channel for three days while the chemicals were skimmed out to keep them from flowing downstream to Galveston Bay.
HPD Chief Acevedo said on the scene around 9:30 a.m. that more than 100 homes had been damaged, and warned any would-be looters that a man caught stealing TVs and cigarettes from a Walmart during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Hours later, Houston Fire Department officials said that an additional 18 residents had “self-reported” to nearby emergency rooms due to breathing problems and injuries from debris. City officials said around 200 homes were damaged in the blast, some of which were knocked free from their foundations.
Peña told reporters the Houston Fire Department will be on site investigating the incident for several days. “For right now what we can assure the public is the hazard has been contained. We have secured the leak from the propylene tank,” he said.
James Palmer contributed to this report.