Times-Picayune: Cause of fatal Geismar plant explosion remains a mystery

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By Quincy Hodges, Chelsea Brasted, Lauren McGaughy, Sheila V Kumar, and Diana Samuels

massive explosion at a chemical plant Thursday morning in Geismar killed a 29-year-old employee and sent at least 77 people to local hospitals with burns and other injuries.

“This is a tragic incident,” Gov. Bobby Jindalsaid, promising an investigation to find the cause of the explosion that rocked the Williams Olefins plant, 5205 LA 3115, about 8:36 a.m.

Zachary Green, a plant employee from Hammond, was killed in the blast, Louisiana State Police said. Of dozens of people taken to Baton Rouge area hospitals, three were in critical condition as of Thursday evening.

A scene of “mass hysteria” followed the explosion, with workers scrambling over gates to get out of the plant, contract worker Daniel Cuthbertson told The Associated Press.

"God was with me today because I know when I looked back, I barely made it. I know somebody was hurt. There's no way everybody escaped that," Cuthbertson said.

More than 300 workers were evacuated from the plant.

Officials have not indicated what may have caused the explosion at the plant. Williams Co. officials did not respond to press calls Thursday. The company posted a statement on its website saying, “We are currently focused on the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors and the local community who are responding to the situation.”

The website for Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Co. says the Geismar facility makes 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene annually. The chemicals are highly flammable and used in the production of many plastics. State officials said propylene, rather than ethylene, had caught fire in the explosion.

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Environmental officials had recently approved plans for a fairly major expansion at the Geismar plant. The approval allowed the plant to add two new olefins cracking heater units. Cracking is the process in which ethanol is broken down to yield ethylene, a compound most commonly used to manufacture alcohol and plastics-based products such as solvents, surfactants and polymers.

According to Louisiana Department of Environment Quality Public Information Officer Tim Beckstrom and DEQ records, the expansion was approved in mid-April. DEQ records also show the plant experienced an ethylene leak last December, the result of "a small isolated area of corrosion."

DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency officials were at the scene monitoring the air quality after the blast. DEQ officials said initial tests did not reveal any problematic levels of emissions.

Ethylene can cause problems with people’s nervous system, causing shakiness or dizziness, and can irritate eyes and sinuses, said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Propylene can be a potential carcinogen and can cause difficulty breathing when inhaled, Rolfes said.

Green, the man who died in the blast, was remembered by friends as a soccer lover with a “heart of gold.” He grew up in the Ponchatoula area and is survived by a wife, Emily, and young daughter.

Rachelle Giovingo, of Ponchatoula, said she babysat Green from the time he was 6-weeks-old until he was 13.

“Zachary was very energetic,” Giovingo said. “He had a heart of gold. He loved, loved, loved his sister Holly. … He would do anything for friends and family. He was one of those rare gems that God had blessed you with.”

Giovingo said Green’s family has struggled with workplace accidents before; Green’s father was killed in a “tragic offshore accident,” 18 years ago, she said.

Niko Imbraguglio met Green in first grade and graduated from Ponchatoula High School with him. He remembered him as a sometimes-mischievous jokester.

“He was a really special person,” Imbraguglio said. “You’d meet him and you’d remember him.”

Savannah Stanga Perrin, who attended elementary and high school with Green, said he was the type of person who could "light up a room" when he walked in it.

"I think we lost a great person. He was just a great guy. Once he became a father, you just saw a complete change in Zack. We definitely lost a great one today," Perrin said.

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