Under The Volcano

Crown Central Petroleum spews, sputters and flares up. Neighbors of the plant view it uneasily, never quite sure when it's going to blow.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Tamathia Hough and her sister were trading anxious questions about their little brother. After the terrorist attacks he'd been called to active duty by the army, and they hadn't heard anything from him for weeks. Hough tapped out her words in brisk flourishes and waited for the replies, in this latest round of a running Internet chat they started when their phone bills began to get ridiculous.

A blast rang out, and the windows of her Pasadena apartment rattled. Too strong to be a car backfiring, she thought. Probably a flare firing off at the old refinery down the road. She continued talking with her sister online.

Her son, Ricky, and a friend picked themselves up from their video game and scampered outside to see what was going on.

Tamathia Hough, Ricky and pal Joe Lopez, one day after learning their apartments were being condemned.
Deron Neblett
Tamathia Hough, Ricky and pal Joe Lopez, one day after learning their apartments were being condemned.
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."
Deron Neblett
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."

"Mom, Mom, the plant's on fire! The plant's on fire!" the redhead howled upon his return.

Hough shot out the door to find her neighborhood of frame houses and hard-luck apartments converted "into a Godzilla movie," as one homeowner would later put it. Panic-stricken people piled into their cars with none of their possessions and raced away for their lives. Some jumped on bikes and pedaled frantically toward State Highway 225. Others just ran.

Hough had a different instinct. The 34-year-old woman hightailed it toward Crown Central Petroleum to have a look. Sure enough, flames engulfed the plant, sending columns of thick black smoke into the air. She approached a group of patrol cars on Richey Street, presumably there to divert traffic away from the refinery and the Washburn Tunnel beside it. She asked the officers what chemicals were burning and if she should evacuate.

Whatever was coming out of the plant probably wouldn't hurt her, said one. As for what to do, that was up to her.

She was back on her porch on a tense phone call with her husband when a second explosion erupted "like an atomic bomb." It nearly knocked Hough off her feet as flames surged upward, turning the night orange and spreading a wave of heat over the area.

Her husband, a tugboat deckhand, was stuck on the water.

"He was hollering for me to get out," Hough recalls. "How was I supposed to get out when our car was broken down and I had nowhere to go? Everybody left us."

Meanwhile, Ricky had grown hysterical, certain the worst was still to come. The 11-year-old wanted to flee to his "secret clubhouse" on Vince Bayou.

A looming fixture on the landscape for more than 80 years, Crown has been an engine of economic growth for the Pasadena area. It also has plagued its neighbors with sporadic explosions, spills and a steady stream of pungent sulfur compounds that can make breathing a bitter chore. Many view the spewing, sputtering refinery the way others might look upon a grumbling volcano: They're never quite sure when it's going to blow.

The same month as the Thanksgiving explosions, the company had settled a groundbreaking clean-air suit with environmentalists and residents, an agreement that included the largest air pollution penalty ever assessed by the state. A broad coalition of fed-up people challenged the powerful industry and goaded regulators into protecting public health.

Crown was supposed to have changed. But a recent rash of mishaps has made some wonder if they can ever make this company run safely. The refinery's dismal record raises questions about the uneasy coexistence of private homes and heavy industry, a crucial dilemma for an area that marches to the beat of free enterprise yet today struggles with some of the nation's worst pollution, says Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.

"The idea that it's okay to reduce my profits and add to my cost of doing business for some liberal collective interest -- that's as far away from the old [Houston-area mentality] as you can get," Klineberg says. "Now the business community doesn't quite control it anymore…They've got to deal with minority communities; they've got to deal with neighborhoods. Other people are at the table."

At a safer distance from the unfolding chaos on November 23, public safety officials also felt a sense of helpless frustration. They had fielded calls from alarmed residents but had heard nothing from Crown. That silence made it impossible to determine what emergency protocols to employ. Should they sound sirens? Post messages on radio and television? What would they say? Some 20 minutes passed before the company reported that it had blown up.

"That's a long time for people in a state of panic not knowing what to do," says Michael Massey, assistant for public safety to Pasadena Mayor John Manlove.

Massey, by his own admission, was unaware that Crown sits on city property and not in a deannexed industrial zone like other companies. Knowing this would in theory have given the fire department and other city personnel more options to respond, Massey says, but the reality is that Crown, like other refineries, has its own emergency response teams, and the city provides backup only as needed.

Jack Jones, the plant's environmental manager, finally called from his home at 8:20 p.m. to alert officials that a liquefied petroleum gas unit had exploded. Beyond that, he had "very little information," a Harris County Pollution Control notification record says.

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