Welding Likely Caused Texas Plant Fire

BRYAN, Texas (AP) -- A welding job likely sparked a fire at a central Texas chemical plant that forced thousands of people from their homes and closed Texas A&M University's main campus, an emergency management official said Friday.

The investigation continues at the El Dorado Chemical Co. plant, but "the best information we have is that the fire was started by some welding," said John Salsman with Brazos County emergency management.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate and 34 people were treated and released at hospitals, mostly for smoke inhalation or eye irritation, after the blaze started at midday Thursday. The fire was still smoldering early Friday, but residents were all allowed to return to their homes, city spokeswoman April Saginor said.

The plant blends and packages fertilizer and other chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, a chemical used to make explosives. Salsman said extensive air monitoring throughout the night did not detect harmful levels of toxins in the air around Bryan, a city of 80,000 or so located about 100 miles north of Houston.

Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality were doing an environmental assessment of the site Friday.

The nearby Texas A&M campus, which was closed as a precaution, was reopened Friday. A&M's Reed Arena served as a shelter for about 1,200 people, but the shelter was closed late Thursday and most people returned home, Salsman said.

El Dorado Chemical's Web site describes the facility as a place where customers can stock up on ammonium nitrate fertilizer "by the truckloads" 24 hours a day. The company said in a statement that it would conduct an internal review and cooperate with authorities' investigations.

"We deeply regret the enormous inconvenience this incident has caused residents and businesses in Bryan and College Station as well as other nearby communities," the statement said.

More in Operations