t’s been two years since two explosions at the TPC Group plant in Port Neches rocked the city, damaging homes and businesses.
More than 5,000 people have sued TPC, and they may have to wait two or three years for their cases to make it to court. 12News is digging into the reasons this litigation is taking so long and what led up to the explosions that rocked Port Neches.
A preliminary report from the feds offers crucial clues and paints a picture of a plant that knew it had problems.
Families and businesses in Port Neches have done the best they can to move on. Some say they’re still scarred by the blast.
One mother said she was knocked out of her bed when the explosion happened just before she heard her daughter screaming at the top of her lungs. A business owner told 12News he was in a hurry to clean up his coffee shop when a second explosion rocked the city, causing him to close the store for days.
People in Port Neches had learned to live comfortably with their neighbor, the TPC Group facility on Magnolia and Spur 136. Homes, baseball fields, and schools surround portions of the plant’s perimeter. Allison Hudspeth said it never really bothered her that the plant was so close.
“All I saw was my neighborhood – my neighbors – my friends. So it didn’t really bother me,” Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth and her friends in Hebert Woods, off Merriman, can see the towers of TPC from their front doors.
“I certainly wasn’t scared, or nervous, or worried about anything happening,” Hudspeth said.
Two years ago, TPC’s neighbors were rocked by an explosion in the night. It’s something Hudspeth can’t easily forget.
“Some noise, some something, sets it off and I think about it,” Hudspeth said.
Instantly, her mind bounces back to the pure panic on November 27, Thanksgiving eve, in 2019. She said she didn’t know it was the plant when the initial explosion happened.
“I’m yelling ‘call 911, call 911,’ because I didn’t know what had happened,” Hudspeth said.
She said she was knocked out of bed. “[I saw] bright red, bright yellow colors, and I’m just running around not knowing what’s going on,” Hudspeth said.
Her daughter was nearly hit by a wall of falling glass.
“She had just come from the kitchen to go get her phone, and right as she passed, that whole window blew in. She was standing, and just missed it, she had made it to that little doorway right there,” Hudspeth said.
Her son was asleep in the back of the house.
“His door was jammed shut. He was walking through glass when I got him,” Hudspeth said.
She said the look on her son’s face was like nothing she had ever seen before.
“The look on his face was like the devil just put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You’re coming with me forever.’ I mean, he just had this horrified look on his face,” Hudspeth said.
Blocks away, in downtown, the blast blew open The Avenue Coffee and Café. Randy Edwards and his team rushed to clean up the store before the business day.
“We have a really good community around here,” Edwards said. “And we started getting messages on Facebook and Instagram. ‘Hey, your windows blew out. Your doors are wide open.'”
He said they intended to go ahead and open the store that day.
“That was the plan. Once we cleaned up, we had the windows boarded. We had staff planning to come in. People were en route when the second explosion happened,” Edwards said.
It forced the store to close its doors for three days. The fire at the facility burned for weeks after the explosions, decimating most of the plant.
Coon said he has walked through what’s left of the plant.
“It looks like World War II. It’s devastating. It looks like it was all fire bombed,” Coon said. “It was fire bombed.”
He said the employees at the facility had a ‘false sense of security’ before it all happened. He said they felt ‘relatively safe.’
“And they should be, and Jordan, they could be,” Coon said. “They’re supposed to be.”
Video footage from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and the Museum of the Gulf Coast shows the plant being built.
It featured 200-ton towers of steel, 17 stories tall, which were built on site and hoisted into place to form the foundation of Neches Butane. These were some of the very parts of the plant that blew up decades later.
“Just because it’s a refinery, it’s not supposed to blow up. Just because it’s a chemical plant, it’s not supposed to blow up. It’s not supposed to put anyone at risk,” Coon said.
He believes it was no accident.
“This was very avoidable. It was known to be avoidable, so it’s not an accident in my opinion,” Coon said.
He points to the preliminary report from the US Chemical Safety Board, which focuses on TPC’s issues with something called ‘popcorn polymer.’ The report especially mentions the issues in the south unit where the explosion happened.
“The product in the lines gets gummed up and when it gets gummed up, it expands. When it expands in the piping, it can cause the pipe to rupture. It’s not a lot different than when water gets frozen in a pipe,” Coon said.
In this case, 6,000 gallons of flammable liquid, mostly butadiene, escaped in less than a minute, forming a flammable vapor cloud. The first explosion happened a minute later.
“The problem is that when this piping splits, water’s not coming out. Highly combustible hydrocarbons and chemicals are, and they tend to blow up,” Coon said. “Catch fire and blow up and that’s what happened here.”
Written by Jordan Williams, Raegan Gibson, KBMT (12NewsNow)