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Police: 2 Dead After Building Explosion Shakes Houston

Courtesy of KHOU
Industrial buildings in Houston after an explosion Friday morning.

Two people have died following a large explosion at a manufacturing facility in northwest Houston early Friday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo confirmed Friday morning. 

The explosion, which occurred at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing facility, heavily damaged nearby buildings and homes, left rubble scattered in the area and was felt miles away.

Eighteen people have gone to local emergency rooms, reporting minor injuries from the blast, including breathing problems and cuts, according to the Houston Fire Department. Another 48 people have checked into a Red Cross shelter.

Officials believe the two victims to be two male Hispanic employees, but the bodies haven’t been identified yet. 

Officials say there are about 200 homes in the area surrounding the explosion.

“We’ve assessed between 180, 190 at this point. The majority of those have received some sort of damage,” said Fire Chief Samuel Peña. "The ones that are more proximal to the area of the blast are damaged heavily, some of them off the foundation.” He said they are continuing to check the homes for structural stability. 

Air quality tests by the Health Department continue to show no cause for concern, according to officials.

Propylene was released into the air in the aftermath of the explosion. As of 9:30 am, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said they were able to enter the building and secure the leak.

“We had a 2,000-gallon tank of propylene. That has been secured, and so we don’t have any active leak at this moment,” he told reporters. 

Propylene is a colorless gas used to produce chemicals in plastics, synthetic rubber and gasoline. It is highly flammable and can explode in a fire. People exposed to propylene can become dizzy and light-headed, and the gas can also cause liver damage.

Credit Jen Rice / Houston Public Media
Houston Public Media
Firefighters gather at the scene following an explosion at a manufacturing facility in Northwest Houston.

“It is saddening and infuriating to see more people die because of another chemical explosion in the Houston area,” Elena Craft, the senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund said in a press release. “These deadly tragedies cannot be the new normal in a city and region where industrial threats abound. Government at all levels must act to ensure the health and safety of workers and the people living near these facilities, and that starts by holding industry accountable and strengthening safeguards. Enough is enough.”

Acevedo said there is no evidence that the explosion was intentional, but they will conduct a criminal investigation as part of the process. 

Authorities continue to tell nearby residents to avoid the area near the 4500 block of Gessner Road, north of Clay. Aerial images show rubble where one building apparently had stood and debris strewn about. Surrounding structures had portions of their walls and roofs heavily damaged. Officials said there was significant damage to an adjacent strip mall as well. 

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD has closed Bane Elementary and Dean Middle School. Spring Branch ISD says they’re anticipating transportation delays but otherwise are planning for a normal school day. Both districts say they’ll keep students inside. Houston ISD will be operating as normal.

Mark Brady, who lives near the blast site, told Houston TV station KPRCthat the explosion “knocked us all out of bed.”

He said: “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here … and closer toward the explosion over here, it busted people’s roofs in and walls in.”

The explosion occurred around 4:30 a.m., with reports on Twitter of a boom felt across the city.

Several people told Houston TV station KHOU that the explosion was so loud, they thought a bomb had gone off or that a vehicle had crashed into their homes. At one man’s home about 1/4 mile (0.4 kilometers) away, glass doors were shattered, ceilings were cracked, and the lid of his toilet was even torn off, the station reported.

The Houston area has seen a series of explosions over the past year. Last July, an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown left more than dozen people with minor injuries and put nearby residents under a shelter-in-place advisory for three hours.

In November, two blasts in the coastal city of Port Neches shattered windows and ripped the doors from nearby homes.

This is a continuing story that will be updated as more details emerge.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Port Neches explosion occurred in November.