United States Fire Administration Technical Report Series
Air Today Chemical Plant
Explosion and Fire
Investigated by: Jack Oates
During the course of operations at the Air Today Chemical Complex in Portillo, TX, an explosion and ensuing fire occurred which resulted in substantial damage to the process unit which produces [withheld pending judgement in U.S. v Boyd]
Personnel Accounting Procedures used at the plant indicate 1 person missing, but no remains have been found, and all employees of Air Today, as well as its contractors and visitors were accounted for. An investigation of these procedures will be conducted.
Minor damage and disturbance was reported in surrounding neighborhoods, including one head injury.
Information available at the time of this report indicated that there
was a failure in either a line or valve which carried [withheld]. The line was reported as being approximately 10″ in diameter and possibly carrying as much as 700 pounds per square inch pressure. It is not known if a mechanical failure took place or if human error was a factor.
Regardless, a failure of a high pressure line carrying these types
of flammable products can create a large, enveloping, explosive cloud
Information from witnesses indicates that a vapor cloud developed very
Due to the activation of a fire alarm, by whom or what means is not clear at this time, workers had approximately 2.5 to 4 minutes to evacuate.
Potential ignition sources were all over the plant, including ventilation
fans, electrical switches, and gas burn-off flames throughout the work
area. The exact ignition source may never be known.
Portillo, TX – Present
Rex raced across Portillo, listening to the report of the Air Today explosion on his radio. He braced his camera, sitting in the passenger seat, as he took one sharp turn, and another. He passed the large backlit TVTO sign and halted sloppily across two VISITOR spaces. Rex ejected the tape, the mechanism grinding with excruciating slowness. He snatched it out a leapt up a small set of steps to the entrance. Pounding on a glass door, he noticed the night person was not at the desk. Usually it was Shirley.
“Shirley!” Rex cried.
He pressed his face to the glass, twisting right and left to see if anyone was inside. Finally, he tried his old pass code on a plastic keypad set in the door frame. Success! Relief quelled a spike of enmity – Nyburg still had his cushy tech job, despite overlooking this type of detail. Rex nearly tripped rushing into the reception lobby. He leaned over the desk and hollered toward a corridor leading to the newsroom. He panted lightly, his brow was damp, the tape rattled in his shaking hand. He listened for a reply, hearing only his breath and the hum of air conditioning.
Rex was startled by his pager beeping on his belt. He did not recognize the number, but reflexively, he stretched over the tall reception desk to answer the summons. He strained clumsily, holding the pager to his eye, the phone under his cheek, keying the digits. The call connected.
“Hello, this is Rex Janneter. Yes. Oh no! I’ll be right there!”
He grabbed a pen, perplexed that nobody had responded to his intrusion. He scrawled across the blank label on the face of the videocassette: URGENT!
Rex searched his pockets and found one of his business cards, having amended a portion of them by whiting out Flex and neatly printing the correct three letters in the space above. He snapped off an inch of Scotch tape, affixed the business card – to ensure he would get credit for his offering – and dashed out of the lobby.
Fred and Danny Momus hauled a piece of plywood from their garage. It had been pre-cut, along with several others, to protect the windows of their home from hurricanes. On this night, it would serve perfectly, if unexpectedly. They carried it up the spiral stairs, working around the curve in graceless lurches and muttered commands.
“Lift, Daniel. Higher.”
The EMT’s had declared Diane Momus unharmed, but rattled. She reposed on a sofa, tranquil on tea and Nembutal. Fred had already snapped a roll of photos, documenting the damage for the insurance company. He and his son now endeavored to restore the trashed office. They fitted the board into the large window frame and secured it with metal clips. It was late, but they kept going. Fred worked a push broom, and Danny a large dustpan, collecting glass and debris.
“Scary as hell, son. Could’a been my unit. Damn lucky nobody was hurt.” He still wore his jumpsuit, and he wiped his brow with a blue sleeve. Danny plucked a cracked pair of glasses out of the dustpan, handing them to Fred. He tucked them in the top pocket of his coverall.
“The news said it registered 2.5 on the Richter scale. Like an earthquake,” said Danny. Fred swept a bit longer, not answering, then laid the broom aside.
“I ain’t never been to California, son. Help me push up that bookcase.”
A videotape lay on a desk, in a TV station lobby. A smooth wooden hand reached out for it. It was placed in a briefcase, next to a hatchet with a very old handle, and a very sharp blade. A woman, who worked at the desk, returned from another room, beckoned by a sound.
“Hello. Is anyone there?” Shirley asked.
Peering out, she saw the lobby was empty.
Rex passed through electric sliding doors, entering Portillo General Hospital.
He addressed the nurse at the admissions desk, “I need to see Heather Slown.”
Rex proceeded to describe her, which the nurse mostly ignored as she clacked on her computer. Rex took an elevator to the floor Heather was recovering on, located the room. A doctor was leaving as he approached.
“Is she alright?” Rex asked.
“Miss Slown sustained a considerable blow to the head. At present, it appears to be superficial, no evidence of contusion, contrecoup, so forth, but she’ll be here overnight for observation. You may speak to her, but she’s pretty drowsy. 5 minutes, OK?”
“Thank you,” said Rex.
He slowly pushed through the door. Heather lay with her head swathed like a white ski cap. She appeared to sleep, and he wondered if he should just come back in the morning. A small TV hung from the ceiling in a bulky frame. It was tuned to TVTO – a live report on the explosion. The fire was almost completely extinguished, barely visible. Rex watched, waiting to see if they would play his footage. The vanity of this stung him, and he looked down, feeling ashamed, overcome by what he had put into motion. The result had been so extreme; he could barely comprehend the images, even though he had witnessed the explosion firsthand.
But he had stopped them. Whatever wickedness was being plotted by those shadowy men, it was now thwarted, or at least hindered. He had to believe that.
Heather stirred. “Rex?”
She held out her hand.
Rex crossed the room, and sat in a chair next to her. She smiled at him, and took his hand. He looked at her, feeling grateful to be near her again, that she was safe. They shared a gaze that expressed a thousand words of relief, of surrender, and forgiveness. Finally, Rex spoke.
“I’m here, Heather.”
She replied softly, “I’m ready, Rex.”