By Gregory Hale
By all looks, sounds and appearances, Ron Lewis is just a normal person going about doing his job and living his everyday life.
But that is the furthest thing from the truth for the manager of operational excellence safety and health and corporate EHSS at Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LP. He worked at and lived through one of the most devastating disasters at a chemical facility in the country on Oct. 23, 1989.
“It has been 30 years this year since the incident occurred,” Lewis said during his talk entitled, “My story: Living Through a Major Chemical Plant Explosion,” at the 15th Global Congress on Process Safety held in conjunction with the 2019 AIChE Spring Meeting in New Orleans, LA. “On that day, I was one of the lucky ones and escaped with my life.”
Thirty years ago, Lewis worked at the Phillips 66 Houston Chemical Complex (HCC) in Pasadena, TX.
HCC produced 15 billion pounds per year of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a plastic material used to make milk bottles and other containers. Just around 1,500 people worked at the facility, including 905 company employees and 600 daily contract employees, who worked primarily in regular maintenance activities and new plant construction.
It all started to unravel around 1 p.m. that day. The accident resulted from a release of flammable process gases that occurred during regular maintenance operations on one of the plant’s polyethylene reactors. More than 85,000 pounds of flammable gases released through an open valve almost instantaneously.
During routine maintenance, isolation valves were closed and compressed air hoses that actuated them physically disconnected as a safety measure. The air connections for opening and closing this valve were identical, and had been improperly reversed when last re-connected. As a result, the valve would have been open when the switch in the control room was in the “valve closed” position. After that, the valve was opened when it was expected to stay closed, and finally passed the reactor content into air.
A vapor cloud formed and traveled rapidly through the polyethylene plant. Within 90 to 120 seconds, the vapor cloud came into contact with an ignition source and exploded.
“Around 1 p.m. I going over to a meeting and shortly after 1 the plant alarm system went off. I followed the fire chief out of the room. The world as I knew it changed forever. The floor shook violently.
“The bookcases toppled over and I was knocked over. I knew wherever ground zero was, there was no survivors.”
Lewis then gained his balance and bearings and rain outside.
“Once outside the building the sky was raining with debris,” he said. “I started running to keep being hit from flying debris. Once I got to the (facility) fire house, I intercepted co-workers who were in shock. That is when a secondary explosion went off.
“I stayed in an office not knowing what to do. I then headed east to the polypropylene plant to look for some co-workers. I intercepted the manager of the polypropylene plant and we headed out and made our way to the Phillips 66 Credit Union and people were starting to gather there. Once there I ran into co-workers and a woman came up to me and said she couldn’t find her husband,” he said.
After news of the blast hit, several senior management officials immediately flew to the site, he said.
“There were so many people unaccounted for. The company paired employees to go to employees’ homes to inform families their loved ones were not accounted for. I went to one house and found a spouse unresponsive surrounded by family members. Another house a 20-year-old was home all alone and she was aware her father would never come home again.”
Out in the parking lot where everyone left their cars during the day, there was a mess.
“I went out to retrieve my vehicle in the parking lot,” Lewis said. Cars had their ceilings caved in because of the power of the blast; my car was not drivable.”
Later on, Lewis said he went to the catalyst activation area at the facility.
“We found a graveyard of hardhats from people that ran for their lives. That is something I will never forget.”
After a long day, he went home and then came back to work the next day where the main job was recovering bodies. Everyone started digging through the rubble of the blast and hunted for their brothers and sisters.
In all, Lewis said there were 23 fatalities and over 300 workers hurt. The explosion was the equivalent of 2.4 tons of TNT and it registered between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale. Debris found six miles away. There was the destruction of eight HDPE reactors and associated equipment and over $715 million in property damage.
As Lewis mentioned the incident occurred almost 30 years ago and you can still hear the emotion and utter shock in his voice.
“I hope you never have to experience something like this. It can happen to you,” Lewis said. “You have to have the mindset that you have to work every day to prevent it from happening.”