LA PORTE, Texas — Danny Francis was working with four others in a control room at DuPont's La Porte plant at 3:30 a.m. Nov. 15 when he "heard a female voice on the radio that sounded frantic."
Crystle Wise, a seasoned operator who had joined DuPont only eight months before, was trapped on the fourth floor of a hulking pesticide processing unit about 50 yards away. She reported that she had been exposed to a chemical and was experiencing a reaction.
The Houston Chronicle reports that inside the control room, no alarms indicated a leak and no images on computer screens pinpointed her location as Francis donned a helmet, goggles and gloves.
He headed to the Lannate building — part of what DuPont calls its Insecticide Business Unit — only a few minutes behind co-worker Robert Tisnado, according to accounts in newly released reports from the Harris County fire marshal and Sheriff's Office.
Francis reached the fourth floor by climbing sets of metal stairs inside the foul-smelling pesticide unit, but couldn't find Wise or Tisnado.
Harris County investigators' reports paint a picture of confusion, chaos and delays in those early morning hours as Wise, Tisnado, Tisnado's brother, Gilbert "Gibby" Tisnado, and Wade Baker all became overcome and died when 23,000 pounds of toxic gases accumulated from a leak inside the pesticide unit.
The Houston Chronicle obtained the reports through a Texas Public Information Act request.
Francis, 54, provides the only eyewitness account included in county reports. He still works at DuPont, but could not be reached for comment.
Francis grabbed a plant phone inside the contaminated Lannate unit in the early hours of Nov. 15 to call control room supervisor David Scott. Scott told him others might still be in-between the third and fourth floors. Francis tried to turn back, but grew dizzy and fell down the stairs.
It's unclear when Francis regained consciousness or whether he's the only worker who escaped. It was much later before someone told him there had been a major chemical leak. He learned from an ambulance crew member who transported him to Bayshore Medical Center, according to an account he gave a sheriff's deputy.
The father of the Tisnado brothers, Gilbert Tisnado, said the newly released reports confirm that many people — from workers to managers to emergency responders — made mistakes on the day his sons died. Tisnado, who worked at the DuPont plant himself until he resigned Monday, said he believes plant culture wrongly painted strong-smelling methyl mercaptan as a chemical that was not particularly dangerous.
"Obviously that was wrong," he said.
County officials ruled the deaths accidental at 8 a.m. — before all four victims' bodies were recovered — and have closed their investigations.
Harris County Fire Marshal Mike Montgomery said via email that the plant is exempt from the county fire code because it has "a fire brigade that conforms to requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration." The Fire Marshal's Office had no records of any previous inspection. OSHA had not inspected the plant since 2007. Separate probes by OSHA and by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board continue.
Harris County sheriff's officials report that the first 911 call they received about the disaster came at 4:03 a.m. from someone who could not speak or simply hung up.
A dispatcher called back and confirmed an emergency with four employees missing and a chemical leak detected. As sheriff's officials raced to the multistory pesticide unit, on dead-end Strang Road in La Porte, they scanned the skies for signs of toxic clouds and attempted to identify escape routes.
Once on the scene, officers received conflicting information from DuPont personnel about when or if employees had managed to contain the leak of methyl mercaptan, a highly flammable toxic gas that can be lethal in doses as small as a drop in a soda can. It was two weeks later that DuPont revealed how much had been released - an amount that a former DuPont engineer told the Chronicle probably quickly displaced all available oxygen inside the pesticide unit.
By 5:30 a.m., one DuPont shift supervisor told sheriff's officials that the leak was "contained" but added he was "not sure."
At 6:22 a.m., another plant official reported that a major methyl mercaptan leak was still occurring.
At 6:37 a.m., an operator said all toxic waste products from inside the building were "being incinerated and not releasing."
But at 10 a.m., the control room supervisor, Scott, told officials that the "processing unit was experience(ing) serious blockage and pressure problems" and "may not be safe."
There were conflicting reports, too, about how many DuPont employees were dead, injured or missing, reports show.
At 5:16 a.m., DuPont's "incident commander" — an employee with firefighter training in charge of coordinating the company's emergency response — told a Harris County sergeant that only "three people" were down.
For hours, no one could find Wise, though she'd been the first to raise the alarm. Some speculated she might have "gone home."
Would-be rescuers located Baker, 60, an experienced employee, near valves on the third floor. Robert Tisnado, 39, was found in another third-floor room near his brother's body.
"Gibby" Tisnado, 48, had been the last to enter the unit. He died alongside tanks of air and respirators that he'd brought inside in a solo rescue effort made after the control room lost contact with his brother. Reports show rescuers appear to have made efforts to revive both brothers, but those came too late.
It was three hours after Wise's distress call that officials arrived from Channel Industries Mutual Aid, a regional chemical disaster response network set up decades ago specifically to help in the worst kinds of refinery and chemical accidents in the Houston Ship Channel.
CIMA officials were the ones who finally "cleared" the Lannate unit and authorized a body recovery operation.
Wise, 53, who took the job in La Porte to be closer to her daughter and grandson in Houston, was eventually found dead in a stairwell between the second and third floors.
Nearby was a pair of glasses and the radio she'd used to call for help.