Blast inquiry centers on chemicals
11 hurt in Ferris explosion; 800 evacuated from nearby area
By JIM GETZ / The Dallas Morning News
FERRIS, Texas – A chemical explosion at an aircraft parts plant Thursday sent at least a dozen people to hospitals – two with critical injuries – and prompted the evacuation of about 800 people.
Preliminary indications were that the chemical that set off the explosion at C&G Aircraft was sodium cyanide, which may have mixed with an acid, causing an explosion and release of potentially deadly cyanide gas, officials said. Federal and state investigators were looking into whether the company had permits to possess the chemicals and whether it was required to report them to authorities.
Senior Cpl. Charlie Morgan of the Texas Department of Public Safety said 11 people were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas after the 10:15 a.m. explosion. Four were admitted, and seven were treated and released.
Parkland officials confirmed that employees Tom Young and John Powers were in critical condition late Thursday afternoon, and co-owner Ron Cleaver was in serious condition. Eleven firefighters were taken to hospitals for observation.
The Ellis County Sheriff's Department shut down access to the area surrounding the plant within a six-block radius. As of 6:15 p.m., Police Chief Scott Corbo said, the area had been reduced to a three-block radius. Schools were never evacuated, but parents were given the option of picking up their children.
The city of Dallas hazardous-materials team, along with Garner Environmental Services, contained and neutralized the chemical spill, Chief Corbo said. Garner's cleanup of the plant was expected to take until late Saturday afternoon.
Although the materials crews, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were still determining the exact number, types and quantities of chemicals in the plant late Thursday afternoon, TCEQ official Jim Kerlin said preliminary indications were that the main culprit was sodium cyanide, a chemical used in electroplating.
Tim Fagan, an investigation manager for Air Salvage of Dallas, said C&G cleans and replates aircraft engine hardware, such as nuts and bolts, to be used for reassembly.
When sodium cyanide is mixed with any kind of acid, hydrogen cyanide gas can be released – the same gas used in execution chambers. Cpl. Morgan and Chief Corbo said chaos ensuing from the spilling of the sodium cyanide might have spilled some kind of acid, resulting in the release of gas and a flash-fire explosion.
EPA "sniffing" devices had not detected any gas as of 4 p.m., so "it seems fairly unlikely right now that there is any cyanide or other materials outside the building," Mr. Kerlin said.
It is unclear whether the plant had a legal obligation to furnish a list of its chemicals to any public agency, including the local fire department. Chief Corbo said he obtained a list of 25 to 30 possible chemicals within the building about 90 minutes after the initial explosion. The list did not definitely state what was in the plant Thursday.
Attending the news conference, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, said he was concerned that such a plant could operate in the center of a town. He said authorities at all levels would investigate what permits the company possessed to use the chemicals.
Mr. Kerlin said he was unsure of whether C&G was required to furnish a list – known as a "material safety data sheet" – to state or local officials because there are different reporting thresholds for various chemicals.
"And part of the problem here is," he added, "it's not a day-to-day reporting – it's an annual reporting."
Mayor Jimmie Birdwell and City Council member Scott Born said the incident could prompt the council to tighten regulations over such businesses downtown and possibly step up inspections. Although the city has zoning now, many such businesses are allowed to continue operating.
"But it's not a case of 'Come to Ferris and do whatever you want because there's no regulation,' " Mr. Born added. "It's not that way at all. But like most small towns, we have limited resources. We don't have a fire marshal."
Mr. Birdwell said the city has hired a code enforcement officer, but that individual still has to be certified. Council member Victor Burnett said he is going to propose that the next budget include a city administrator who ultimately could ensure that inspections are done.
Many people reporting hearing explosions Thursday morning, and a few described seeing two severely burned men lying outside the plant. Ellis County Commissioner Hallie Joe Robinson spoke briefly with a Ferris city worker who was at the scene shortly after the explosion.
"He said he saw two men that were visibly charred," he said. "He didn't know if it was fire or chemical; he did see them land on the sidewalk. He did not know if there were other people inside the building still."
Hermelinda Munoz, who works at Buena Vista Tacqueria about a quarter-mile from the site, heard one large explosion and then two smaller ones. "I was scared a lot, for sure," she said. "I remember Sept. 11, and I thought it was something like that."
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