Judge Orders Evidence Preservation at Site of Deadly Explosion

This aerial photo taken from video provided by KTRK-TV shows damage to buildings after an explosion in Houston on Friday. (KTRK-TV via AP)

HOUSTON (CN) – Teams of investigators are preparing to descend on what is left of a Houston machine shop rocked by an explosion last week, after a judge signed orders Monday allowing attorneys to gather evidence for the families of two workers killed in the blast.

Frank Flores, 44, and Gerardo Castorena Sr., 45, were killed when a propylene tank exploded around 4:30 a.m. Friday at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing’s shop in the Spring Branch district of Houston, Texas. 

The men had come to the shop before their shifts started to work out at a gym the company had set up for employees.

Muhammad Aziz is representing Flores’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit seeking more than $1 million. He is with the Houston firm Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz.

He said Flores’ routine was to work out in the mornings before he started work. 

“He was a lead supervisor, he had been there for a while. Basically he used to open up the shop every morning. He was one of the first employees to get there every morning,” Aziz said.

Aziz spoke to reporters after a brief hearing Monday in which Harris County District Judge Tanya Garrison granted him a temporary restraining order, ordering Watson to preserve any equipment involved in the explosion, any video footage of the incident and correspondence about it.

Attorneys representing the company joined the hearing via speaker phone and said the site is not under its control right now.

They said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives has been at the site since the explosion and investigators have been moving things on the scene with machines.

Aziz said once the ATF wraps up, which he expects could be as soon as Thursday, Watson can give permission for the attorney’s investigative team to comb over the site.

An ATF spokesman declined Monday to say what the agency is moving on the site and said the agency does not know how long its investigation will take.

Aziz said that before the ATF finishes, his firm will send a plane over the site to do a LiDAR survey. The technology involves sending laser beams down to the ground, which are used to map the earth beneath a disaster site.

Aziz said the crater from the blast will need to be measured and that his investigation will also likely entail sending material from the site to labs for testing.

The propylene tank is key to the Flores family’s case because it may prove Watson had not complied with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“While currently unknown how much propylene was stored at defendants’ facility, if a company has more than 10,000 pounds of propylene it is required to file a Risk Management Plan with the EPA. Defendants do not have an RMP on file,” the lawsuit states.

Aziz said he is asking for all documentation related to the propylene, which is used to make plastic, down to bills of lading.

Judge Garrison also granted Castorena’s family a temporary restraining order late Friday in their wrongful death lawsuit.

Both the Flores and Castorena families set up web pages to help pay for funeral expenses. The Flores family had received more than $5,400 towards its $10,000 goal on Monday night, while Castorena’s family had closed their fundraiser after reaching their $12,500 goal.

Garrison has now granted five TROs against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing related to the blast, including one on Monday for Ramon Cortez, who filed a class action Friday on behalf of anyone who suffered property damage from the explosion. 

Authorities say it damaged more than 200 homes, knocking dozens off their foundations and rendering some uninhabitable as sheet rock fell from ceilings and walls caved in.

Cortez is represented by Michael Downey with the Mostyn Law Firm in Houston.

Cortez says in his lawsuit that his home’s windows, garage door and front door were blown out by the explosion and it cracked his ceiling. 

The blast was so powerful that people living 40 miles from the shop said it woke them up.

At the hearing Monday, Watson’s attorneys said they have not spoken to the owners of the family-owned company, so they could not enter into any agreements for them in regards to the restraining orders.

“We are saddened by the tragic passing of our coworkers, and our deepest sympathies are with their families for their profound loss,” the oil-drilling valve manufacturing company said in a statement Friday. “Our hearts go out to the families and businesses impacted by this incident and to our community.”

Seven lawsuits have been filed against the company in Harris County Court since Friday.

Garrison set a hearing for the litigants’ applications for temporary injunctions for Feb. 10 at 1:30 p.m. 

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CoNS reporter James Palmer contributed to this report.

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