Houston, Texas — Four workers killed by poisonous gas during a recent chemical leak were trapped inside the Texas pesticide plant for an hour before anyone called 911, and no one told dispatchers what substances were inside.
The DuPont plant in La Porte typically housed as much as 250 tons of highly flammable methyl mercaptan, the Houston Chronicle reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/1FgbHEt ).
But it also contained at least some methyl isocyanate. That's the same chemical that escaped a Bhopal, India, pesticide plant in 1984, killing more than 2,200 people in the world's worst industrial accident.
On Nov. 15, DuPont's shift supervisor Jody Knowles gave no details about the presence of methyl isocyanate and methyl mercaptan, an ingredient of insecticides and fungicides and an odorant for natural gas, in a 911 call to the fire department.
Knowles also attempted to downplay risk to the general public. After he told the dispatcher about anticipated casualties, the dispatcher asked: "Can you tell me is this any risk to the public? Is it gonna be a possible escaping from your premises?"
"No ma'am, it is not," Knowles responded.
The plant covers 600 acres along the Houston Ship Channel in LaPorte and has operated since 1956.
Federal officials are investigating the accident. However, emergency management officials say it's already clear that the response to the leak was inadequate and slow, especially given the scope of the disaster. The accident site had been plagued with recurring maintenance problems, and workers lacked quick access to breathing equipment that would have given them a better chance at survival.
No DuPont official contacted a special emergency industrial response network called the Channel Industries Mutual Aide, a nonprofit formed to deal with potentially deadly disasters. It was hours before DuPont verified that anyone had died.
DuPont has refused to clarify how many pounds of toxins were released.
Officials said a valve failed on a container of methyl mercaptan and the four were killed after inhaling too much gas.
The incident is the worst loss of life in an industrial accident at the world's biggest petrochemical complex since 2005, when a refinery explosion killed 15 workers in Texas City.