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50,000 under evacuation order as fire burns at Texas chemical plant

A resident of in Port Neches, Texas, inspected his windows after they were shattered by a chemical plant explosion.
A resident of in Port Neches, Texas, inspected his windows after they were shattered by a chemical plant explosion.Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via Associated Press/Houston Chronicle via AP

PORT NECHES, Texas — More than 50,000 people in East Texas remained under a mandatory evacuation order Thursday as a fire continued to burn at a TPC Group chemical plant, one day after two massive explosions there.

Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens said the evacuation order and a 10 p.m. curfew remained in effect. Officials did not know when people would be able to return to their homes.

“It’s Thanksgiving, a lot of people are displaced, they can’t go home,” Stephens told KFDM-TV Thursday, explaining the danger of further explosions and fire rather than air-quality problems as the reason the evacuation order remained in place.

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The Wednesday blasts, 13 hours apart, blew out windows and doors of nearby homes and prompted a mandatory evacuation in a four-mile radius from the plant in Port Neches. about 80 miles east of Houston.

Fire Captain Tyler Herbert said Thursday morning that the fire was still burning.

The initial explosion at the plant, which makes chemical and petroleum-based products, occurred around 1 a.m. It started a fire and created a plume of smoke that stretched for miles.

The second blast ripped through the plant about 2 p.m., sending a steel reactor tower rocketing into the air. That prompted Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the top county official, to order the evacuation of Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, and part of Port Arthur. Water cannons were trained on surrounding plant works and tanks to keep them cool and avoid further explosions.

Wednesday night, Branick said a loss of power at the plant prevented any investigation of the cause of the explosions or of the damage. He said there was no estimate on the extent of damage to surrounding neighborhoods.

Monk said a TPC team would investigate what led to the explosions.

“We’re staying focused on the safety of our emergency response personnel folks in and around in the community as well as trying to protect the environment,” Monk said.

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Branick, who lives near the plant, said he was awakened by the initial blast, which blew in his front and back doors.

The three workers hurt during the blast — two TPC employees and a contractor — were treated at hospitals, said Troy Monk, TPC’s director of health, safety and security. The 30 or so employees at the plant at the time of the explosion were accounted for.

Monk said the plant has 175 full-time employees and 50 contract workers.

Branick told KFDM it’s a miracle no one died. He said one worker suffered burns, and the others had a broken wrist and a broken leg.

Texas has seen multiple petrochemical industry blazes this year, including a March fire that burned for days near Houston and another that killed a worker at a plant in Crosby.

In the March fire, prosecutors filed five water pollution charges against the company that owns the petrochemical storage facility after chemicals flowed into a nearby waterway.