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1989

Gas leak kills 23 at plastics factory

On this day in 1989, 23 people die in a series of explosions sparked by an ethylene leak at a factory in Pasadena, Texas. The blasts, which took place at a Phillips Petroleum Company plant, were caused by inadequate safety procedures.

A polyethylene reactor at the Phillips 66 Chemical Complex in Pasadena created chemical compounds necessary for the production of plastics. The plant produced millions of pounds of plastics daily for use in toys and containers.

In an effort to cut costs, Phillips subcontracted much of the necessary maintenance work in the plant. Fish Engineering and Construction, the primary subcontractor, did not enjoy a stellar reputation even prior to the October 23 disaster. In August, a Fish employee opened gas piping for maintenance without isolating the line. This caused flammable solvents and gas to be sent into a work area where they ignited, killing one worker and injuring four others.

Fish was undertaking maintenance work on the plant’s polyethylene reactor on October 23 when, once again, problems arose. A valve was not secured properly, and at approximately 1 p.m., 85,000 pounds of highly flammable ethylene-isobutane gas were released into the plant. There were no detectors or warning systems in place to give notice of the impending disaster. Within two minutes, the large gas cloud ignited with the power of two-and-a-half tons of dynamite.

The explosion could be heard for miles in every direction and the resulting fireball was visible at least 15 miles away. Twenty-three workers at Phillips were killed and another 130 were seriously injured as the first explosion set off a chain reaction of blasts.

A subsequent investigation found that although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had cited Phillips for several serious safety violations in previous years, it had not done a comprehensive inspection of the plant since 1975. Other testimony revealed that inadequate safety procedures used during the maintenance process had left the plant vulnerable to disaster. However, no criminal charges were filed against Phillips or its managers.

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