Twenty years ago this morning, like most who lived within an hour's drive of Wesley — 7 miles south of Brenham — I was awakened by a loud noise. Thunder? Car wreck? Airplane crash? Within minutes, my city editor called, telling me something exploded in our coverage area and serious injuries were involved. His orders: Grab your map, get on the road to Brenham, check in once there.
Fire trucks from surrounding areas sailed past me on F.M. 50. On the radio, some speculated that the disaster involved a pipeline rupture. Seemed plausible; Texas is the largest domestic producer of oil in the United States and pipelines criss-cross our cities like spaghetti on a plate.
Once at a pay phone attached to a convenience store (cell phones were a luxury in the early 90s and The Eagle had zero), my city editor instructed me that I'd be writing about whatever I saw, whatever I learned. As I turned from Texas 109 onto County Road 19, the damage was increasingly obvious. I'm from Omaha, Neb., and what unfolded on either side of County Road 19 is what we saw after a tornado chewed up a neighborhood: Houses off the foundation in jumbled piles, tattered bedding and clothing high in trees stripped of lush spring leaves, mangled belongings and residents standing amid the rubble of what once was their home.
I was surprised as I approached Ground Zero that no one stopped me in my four-door Toyota Corolla. It was my fifth month and first stint at the newspaper, but I didn't have a press pass, let alone business cards. I, however, was the very last of their worries. Emergency management officials at the scene acknowledged to me that they didn't even know a gas storage facility holding liquified petroleum gas — ethane, propane and butane — resided in their community.
It was awkward to walk into the lives of these people who were going through unimaginable pain and ask them to share their thoughts with me. Their concerns. The relief that they were fine. But, that's what journalists do, so I tried to stay out of their way and respect their grief while getting details about near-misses and it-could-have-been-me-or-my-child.
I learned from a volunteer firefighter that a young Brenham police officer found the lifeless body of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired 5-year-old boy named Derrick Meinen. His mother, they said, was taken by helicopter to Hermann Hospital in Houston. Meanwhile, a resident told me about three other lives in danger: A mother and her adult daughter were burned over 60 percent of their body when their car was flattened by the explosion; the 3-year-old child in the car was burned as well. All were taken to a Houston hospital.
I filled up my notebook with stories told by strangers with a definite sadness in their eyes. Everyone knew each other in this hilly countryside painted with wildflowers in each yard, along each road. A place that until that morning was considered a slice of paradise.
A volunteer firefighter took me close to where the fireball tore through the car carrying three generations of the Diver-Medve family. The charred ground rolled out in either direction, paths that easily could be followed by scanning the tree line whipped by fire. That same firefighter took me down the driveway last traveled by the mother and daughter, then showed me the remains of the Meinen home. Everything was in pieces, including appliances. Imagine being able to hold the largest remaining part of a washing machine in one hand. Torn pictures, books and paperwork littered their field. Nearby, several of their cows lay dead.
No family milled about there. They were at the hospital in Houston where Jane would remain in a drug-induced coma until Mother's Day the next month. She missed his funeral, the heavy media coverage, the lawyers. Every day her loving husband, Alan, would tell her their only child died; every night she would forget. Mother's Day was when the bad dream didn't fade, but instead became a waking nightmare that's never slipped away.
Similar feelings of horrific loss were felt in the Medve and Diver families as both Delores, 27, and her 46-year-old mother, Gloria, died within five days of the disaster. Delores' son, Travis, suffered burns over 30 percent of his body, but recovered, at least physically. Two husbands lost their wives; a father lost his daughter; a boy, his mother.
Over the next few years, I followed up with stories on those families and many of the nearly two dozen who were injured. I covered state and federal hearings that highlighted a lack of government oversight and corporate greed. Somewhere along the way, I developed a friendship with the Meinens, a couple who taught me about grace, forgiveness, determination, selflessness and love.
On this, the 20th annniversary of this tragedy that changed so many lives forever, it didn't seem right to again ask these families to relive a pain that I'm certain they're reminded of every day.
So, instead, what follows is not just the ramifications of the explosion, but what unfolded April 7, 1992 in a community that will never forget what they lost or how.
Before the sun came up on April 7, 1992, an alarm sounded at Mid-America's 24-hour monitoring station in Tulsa, Okla. A sensor warned a dispatcher that there was hazardous gas escaping from an underground storage cavern — a salt dome — about 475 miles away in rural Wesley, Texas, about 60 miles from Houston.
Three dispatchers in Tulsa monitored the company’s 10,000 miles of pipeline, along with its gas storage facilities. The one in Wesley was unattended 16 hours each day and was operated by Seminole Pipeline Co., a subsidiary of Mid-America Pipeline.
A minute after the first alarm came at 6:09 that Tuesday morning, one of the dispatchers called a 28-year-old Seminole worker who lived in Brenham and asked him to go to the facility to investigate the source of the alarm. Both the dispatcher and the worker — neither of whom had ever practiced responding to a disaster in a mock situation — assumed if the cavern overfilled with gas that a safety system would shut it down automatically and seal the cavern, preventing vapors from escaping into the air.
Not in a rush, the worker took a shower, dressed, stopped at a convenience store for a Diet Coke and arrived at the cavern about 20 minutes later. He immediately noticed a large cloud of what looked like fog engulfing the facility. He tried to turn off the engine of his diesel truck, but the motor kept running on the airborne gas vapor.
He realized he couldn’t make it to the facility’s manual shut-off valve, so retreated to a house of a nearby resident. He called back to dispatch and mentioned there was gas in the field (but not beyond), then called his supervisor, who ordered the worker to evacuate the area and get to safety, staying far from the vapor cloud.
The residents who lent their phone told him that a school bus was expected down County Road 19, so he ignored his boss's instruction and headed into the vapor cloud, attempting to stop the bus and get to the main facility to shut off the gas. When mixed with oxygen, the worker knew that natural gas liquid vapors are extremely flammable and capable of explosive ignition.
He came across two other Seminole employees at the entrance and the trio all headed to the shut-off valve — it would be the only way to stop the gas from flowing out of the cavern.
The men were forced out of the area because too much gas had escaped and it was flooding out of the facility. The safety trailer that had emergency breathing apparatus and equipment needed to shut down the facility was 90 miles away in Sugar Land.
A flare could have ignited the escaping gas long before it accumulated into this massive cloud hugging the ground, but the common technique wasn’t used at this site.
It was about that time that the worker watched headlights of a car disappear into the vapor cloud.
By then, 27 gas alarms had sounded in Tulsa and the dispatcher who originally spoke to the worker didn’t wait for him to call back. He didn't realize the magnitude of the situation and left the building when his shift ended.
No one from Tulsa or Seminole dialed 911. No firefighters or other emergency responders had been alerted.
Jane Meinen did make that critical call though.
The 911 operator could hardly hear Jane explain that she smelled gas because of a whistling noise at the plant, which was just several hundred yards from the mobile home she shared with her husband, Alan, and 5-year-old son, Derrick. Their’s was the closest residence to the facility.
Jane gave details that few likely would be able to remember in such a situation — she recalled the name of the company that operated the facility and that the emergency number was out of Tulsa. Her husband was at work at the Coke bottling plant in Brenham; her son, still asleep in his bed.
Her neighbors a few acres away already were in their car, driving down a gravel and dirt driveway toward County Road 19. Gloria Diver, who worked the front desk at the local hospital, was with her daughter, Delores Medve, while her 3-year-old grandson, Travis Medve, was laying down in the backseat.
Headlights from that car were what the Seminole employee had watched disappear into the vapor cloud that was disguised as morning fog.
Seconds later, the cloud exploded with the estimated force of a three-kiloton bomb. The blast registered between 3.5 and 4.0 on the Richter scale and was felt as far away as San Antonio.
Derrick's lifeless body was found by a police officer who responded to the scene within minutes. Jane, who was wearing a back brace because she was recovering from surgery, was discovered in what once was her rose bed.
More than 60 buildings within 3 square miles of the station were damaged and dozens of homes were destroyed, including those lived in by the Meinens, Medves and Divers. It later would be estimated that $9 million in damage was caused by the explosion.
Here’s what investigators learned in the weeks and months that followed:
• The salt dome began construction of the salt dome cavern in 1980 and periodically increased the facility's storage capacity by "washing" the cavern with fresh water, which carved out a huge cavern and increased the capacity. A year later, the company obtained a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission to use the cavern as a storage facility for up to 150,000 barrels of natural gas liquids. Over the next 10 years, however, it more than doubled that amount to about 336,000 barrels.
• The company emptied the cavern an average of 16 times per year from 1982 through 1991, but for a reason never explained they stopped mid-way through 1991. During the first seven months of 1991, the cavern was emptied eight times. But not even once in the nine months leading up to the explosion.
• The volume of product reached an all-time high just 27 days before the accident. Staffers questioned the estimate since it hadn’t been emptied for nine months and an employee was told to “sit” at the cavern overnight to watch for signs of an overfill as the amount going in was reduced.
• Eight days before the blast, Seminole officials met to discuss the fact there were a series of miscalculations on how much liquefied petroleum gas was in the cavern, so a supervisor suggested they empty it. That request was disregarded, the cavern was not emptied, inventory calibrations were not reset and more natural gas liquids were pumped beneath the ground.
• The safety system that was supposed to shut down and close the cavern was poorly designed and wasn't properly maintained. The safety switch was rebuilt from used parts, yet it was the only automated safety device capable of stopping the situation.
Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Texas Railroad Commission renewed concerns about the safety of salt domes used to house natural gases. Hearings were held in Austin and Washington D.C., including several at which Jane Meinen testified, telling not just about her loss and the long-term injuries she'd suffer, but about the education she acquired on how government allowed an industry to go unregulated.
Both inquiries pointed out that it wasn't caused by one solitary failure. The companies involved were using infallible technology and didn't appreciate the role humans have in a highly technical system, but also there was an arrogance among managers and owners who believed they held an inherent superiority to government regulations and sound operating practices, the NTSB found.
Simply put, it was a trade off between revenue and safety. Money won.
It wasn't just mechanical failures and human errors, it was organizational failings caused by a company culture that didn't make safety paramount, didn't train its responders and dispatchers, didn't encourage safe operations and didn't provide communication training or tools for its employees. The system was loaded with opportunities for failure.
Here's a number that speaks for itself: More than 700 errors were made by operators using incorrect temperature and pressure correction factors in their cacluations at the salt dome over a 270-day period.
NTSB investigators dug deep in pursuit of making sure that the same mistakes weren't made over and over again. They recommended greater safety controls after pointing out that there were no federal regulations governing salt domes and no requirements given by state government.
That government indifference was part of the problem. It took five years, but finally the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory to operators of gas and hazardous liquid underground storage facilities: Henceforth, they were were required to create design guidelines and operation guidelines for salt domes, efforts that long ago should have been made mandatory.
The lessons learned by the industry that day live on, at least for the NTSB which still points to it as a way to learn about bad corporate culture and what happens when safety is an afterthought.
Though investigations got to the bottom of what went wrong and top management was made to publicly admit they mismanaged that site, and even though millions of dollars were paid out in settlements to those impacted by negligence, the explosion that shook Wesley and swallowed three lives can never be fully explained away.
An industry that produces the most revenue in Texas and brings in among the largest bonuses for its leaders should have been more accountable. Instead, they jotted down the 'lessons learned' and moved on down the road.
Today, there is no big memorial service like there was on the one-year anniversary. Nothing on the local newspaper's website about it. Those who survived and those who lost loved ones 20 years ago today grieve and remember in their own way, as it should be.