Plant Blast Kills One, Injures 77

GEISMAR, La. – A Thursday explosion at a Williams Partners plant that handles ethane and propane resulted in flames reaching as high as 200 feet, leaving one person dead and dozens injured.

Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams operates the Fort Beeler natural gas processing facility along U.S. 250 between Cameron and Moundsville, as well as the fractionator along the Ohio River south of Moundsville. The company processes gas for Gastar Exploration and Trans Energy, along with several other producers in northern West Virginia.

The Williams facility in Louisiana is one of scores of chemical and industrial facilities that dot the riverside between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The company said the blast happened at 8:37 a.m. By the afternoon, all of the plant’s more than 300 workers had been accounted for, according to Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain.

Louisiana’s health department said 77 people were treated at hospitals, with 51 being released by the evening. Hospitals reported that workers mostly had burns, cardiac and respiratory issues and bruises, health department spokeswoman Christina Stephens said. Police identified the man killed as 29-year-old Zachary C. Green of Hammond, La.

Residents several miles from the plant described feeling the ground shaking.

“It felt like a three-second earthquake. It was a massive explosion,” said Louisiana state Sen. Troy Brown, who lives several miles from the plant. Unsure what it was, he drove to a gas station down the street and saw flames shooting up 100 to 200 feet into the air.

“It was scary,” he said.

The cause was not immediately known, but the FBI said terrorism was not suspected. Early tests did not indicate dangerous levels of any chemicals around the plant after the blast, said Jean Kelly of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Kelly said an ethylene fire at ground level reportedly was waning several hours after the explosion.

A contract worker, Daniel Cuthbertson, 34, described a scene of “mass hysteria” immediately after the explosion, with workers scrambling over gates to get out of the plant.

“God was with me today because I know when I looked back, I barely made it. I know somebody was hurt. There’s no way everybody escaped that,” Cuthbertson said while at an emergency staging area about 2 miles from the plant.

“We are currently focused on the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors and the local community who are responding to the situation. Emergency shut-down valves have been closed. The unit is isolated,” Williams officials stated regarding the Louisiana blast. “Our emergency-response crews are thoroughly trained to respond to these types of incidents and are diligently performing their work with their first priority being the safety and well-being of people in and around the area.”