One killed, one injured in explosion at Air Liquide facility in La Porte

February 10, 2013 3:09:32 PM PST
Crews have recovered a body from the Air Liquide facility in La Porte hours after an explosion in its lab and one worker was reported missing.

According to authorities, the explosion happened just before 7:30am Saturday in a lab at an Air Liquide cylinder plant in the 11400 block of West Fairmont Parkway at Driftwood near Bay Area Boulevard.

An Air Liquide spokesperson says 13 people were at the facility at the time of the explosion -- seven employees were outside the building and six inside the plant. Soon after it happened, Eyewitness News got word that one worker had been injured and another was missing.

Search crews spent the next several hours searching for the man, until a body was discovered Saturday evening.

"We believe everybody has been accounted for at this point," Air Liquide spokesperson Michael Rosen said.

Dean Hensley with the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office said the medical examiner hasn't yet identified the body. But late Saturday evening, his family says they received word from authorities that 30-year-old Javier Ortiz is the worker that was found dead.

"We just ask for prayers for our family, from Houstonians and for God to help us in this difficult time," his wife, Julie Ortiz said.

She says she and her husband have three children, aged 3, 5, and 7.

"I just want everyone to know he's a wonderful father of three and he's loved very much," she said. "We're very active in our church. We're good people. He's a chemist and I'm a teacher at a high school."

Emergency responders used a canine unit from CyFair Fire Department, heavy equipment and a HAZMAT team to search for him, but the mission wasn't easy. His body was still buried under the rubble by 10pm Saturday. Investigators say they're having trouble getting it out.

"Just a lot of damage, it's a metal-type structure building. There's a lot of debris and a lot of metal everywhere and we're having to work around that," Hensley said.

A second employee was injured the blast. He was taken by LifeFlight to UTMB's burn unit in Galveston. Rosen says he is in serious, but stable condition.

"It is my understanding that he (the employee) sustained some burns," Rosen said.

The family of the second victim says he suffered burns to more than 75 percent of his body, and he's not speaking right now. They say the victim worked at the plant for at least 10 years and has two daughters.

Shelter-in-place orders were issued for La Porte and the southeast portion of Pasadena. According to Harris County Office of Emergency Management officials, the La Porte shelter in place was quickly lifted. The order in Pasadena was lifted by 9:45am.

"Everything's been cooled down. All the contents of the building are secure. At this point, there is some structural damage of the building," Air Liquide Spokesman Michael Rosen said.

Rosen said the plant mixes gases and chemicals for commercial use, and the fire started in the section of the plant where that mixing takes place. La Porte officials have been monitoring air quality and say there was no danger to the public.

"To our knowledge and from the authorities here who have been monitoring the air, nothing was released into the atmosphere except for the smoke you all saw," Rosen explained.

But until all of that was determined, nearby homeowners were on edge.

"It sounded like cannons firing. We thought someone was banging on the garage door, a lot of noise and we just ran outside and started panicking," nearby resident Ivan Huerta said.

"You see the black smoke and then you'd see flames come up. And when the flames came up, you would hear a pop right after from either some drums or cylinders popping," resident Ben Aleman said.

Investigators are still on scene this morning trying to determine the cause of the explosion.

A spokesman with the Fire Marshal's Office tells Eyewitness News the body of the man who died in the fire has been removed from the plant, and is now in the hands of the medical examiner, who will be returning the remains to the man's family.
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