April 4, 2010 in City

Refinery blast probe begins

Cause of disaster that killed 5 not immediately apparent
Gene Johnson Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – Investigators launched an inquiry into a deadly Washington state oil refinery blast as families hoped for the best Saturday for two employees who suffered severe burns over most of their bodies.

It could take months to find out what caused the explosion and fire that killed five employees early Friday morning. Inspectors got permission from structural engineers late Friday night to enter the affected areas of the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes and begin their investigation, said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

They remained at the scene Saturday but had no immediate indications about what caused the blast – or whether recent safety violations at the plant were contributing factors.

“We’re really not going to be able to talk much about that until they’re done, which could be several months,” Castro said.

A team from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board was en route Saturday. Anacortes is about 70 miles north of Seattle on Puget Sound.

The blast shook houses and woke people miles away at about 12:30 a.m. Friday. Three men died at the scene and two women died later at a Seattle hospital.

Among those who heard it were Hershel and Bonita Janz, whose son Lew was burned over 75 percent of his body. He was in a medically induced coma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“He’s very, very ill,” Bonita Janz said Saturday. “It’s just a waiting game right now. We have to hope that whatever is best for Lew is what happens.”

Also in critical condition was Matt Gumbel, 34.

Tesoro, based in San Antonio, Texas, said Saturday it was providing grief counseling to its workers and their families. The company also set up a memorial fund.

Company spokesman Lynn Westfall said much of the investigative work being done this weekend is planning – determining what data are needed from the company and with whom investigators need to speak.

Friday’s blast was the largest fatal refinery accident since a 2005 explosion at a BP America refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured 170.

Federal officials have been so worried about safety at the nation’s refineries that in 2007 they began a major push for inspections. They found more than 1,000 workplace violations in the industry.

State regulators fined Tesoro $85,700 last April for 17 serious safety and health violations, defined as those with potential to cause death or serious physical injury. The company appealed and reached a settlement in November, requiring in part that Tesoro correct the hazards and hire a third-party consultant to do a safety audit. The settlement reduced the total penalty to $12,250 and lowered the number of violations to three.

The Friday blast occurred as employees were doing maintenance work on a unit that processes highly flammable liquid derived during the refining process.

Killed were Matthew C. Bowen, 31, of Arlington; Darrin J. Hoines, 43, of Ferndale; Daniel J. Aldridge, 50, of Anacortes; Kathryn Powell, 29, of Burlington; and Donna Van Dreumel, 36, of Oak Harbor.

© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email