His skin was on fire. Brian Johns couldn't feel exactly what was happening to him through the jolt of endorphins and adrenaline pumping through his body, but the acid was still there, sizzling through layer after layer of his skin, from the rich brown color that coated his huge muscles to the pink skin underneath it to the red sinew of muscle beneath.
The ambulance wailed through the dark of night, taking him from the Rohm and Haas plant in Deer Park to the emergency room of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, almost flying over more than 40 miles of road. Now they were rushing him down the hospital corridor, already looking over the damage, noting the second- and third-degree burns that covered more than half of Johns's large body after an explosion in an ammonia recycling unit at the plant.
They cut his work jumpsuit off him and began rinsing his body with hundreds of gallons of lukewarm water to wash away the chemicals. Dr. David Herndon, chief of staff of the Blocker Burn Unit since 1981, laid a slip of pH paper on Johns's skin. It turned red, indicating the presence of acid. Herndon told the nurses to keep rinsing.
Johns had been conscious and aware for most of the time since the explosion. He'd already called his mother, Frances Sowell. The phone jangled just before midnight, and she heard her youngest son's deep voice on the line.
"Mother, there's been an accident. Meet me at the hospital," he said. His voice sounded so calm, Sowell wondered for a moment if it was her son who had been injured or if someone else was hurt.
Then he called back and told her they were headed to UTMB, a hospital with a world-renowned burn center, the Blocker Burn Unit.
Sowell called her four other children, woke up her husband and drove to Galveston. Johns was already in surgery by the time they got there. Herndon scraped off the layers of skin damaged by acid, digging down past the burns that covered most of Johns's 6'9", 325-pound body, a massive structure of bulging muscles he'd crafted through years of bodybuilding, to find skin that was still alive.
As Sowell sat in the waiting room, her son's bosses settled into chairs in a corner of the room. His Rohm and Haas team leader, Lynnette Borrousch, walked over and introduced herself, asking if there was anything Sowell needed, but Tim Fox, a chemical engineer and one of Johns's supervisors, just sat in his chair, arms folded and hands clasped over his belly, eyes closed, not saying a word.
Sitting next to her mother, Pam Roberson studied Fox's face. He didn't even look at her or her mother. He just sat there until Herndon stepped into the waiting room, asking if the chemical engineer had arrived yet.
In a heartbeat, Fox sprang to life, out of his seat and across the room to the doctor. He and Herndon walked into the hallway, but from her chair near the door, Roberson could hear their conversation. Anxious for any information, she closed her eyes and focused, listening intently.
Fox told the doctor that there was nothing Johns was working with any more dangerous than extremely hot water.
"Non-caustic. It was non-caustic, doctor," Fox said.
"I just spent five hours scraping something off of this man's skin. It wasn't non-caustic," Herndon told Fox.
When Johns was due to come out of surgery, his family lined the hallway, craning to get a glimpse of him. Roberson saw a group coming down the hall wheeling a huge air bed with something on it — it was Johns's team; she recognized them — but she couldn't see her brother.
The bed drew up alongside her, and there was a mass of mottled, raw tissue and bandages, nothing that was her brother. Then she saw the eyes.
"Oh my God! That's Brian!"
Standing on the other side of the hall, Sowell craned her neck, but her other daughter, Ronetta, darted in front of her, blocking most of her view.
Borrousch peered over Roberson's shoulder, looked down into the bed and then slid past Sowell into an empty hospital room, cell phone to her ear.
"It's much worse than we thought," she said.
Listening, Sowell realized the "it" Borrousch was referring to was what had happened to her son.
Johns's family contends that he was injured in the explosion due to the gross negligence of his employers at Rohm and Haas, which is owned by Dow Chemical, the largest chemical company in the United States. Dow Chemical representatives and their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
July 17, 2012, was another ordinary day for Johns. He pulled up in his pickup truck to the chemical plant he'd worked at as an operator for more than a decade and started his shift on the dot at 5 p.m.
He moved through the massive construction of interconnected pipes and lines, doing his rounds. He swung open the door on the ammonia recycling unit and walked inside to change the cartridge filter.
The units are sealed with round metal doors like the ones on a submarine. Johns was changing the filter on one of these units — the filter connected to a line through which a mixture of hot water and chemicals including anhydrous cyanide ran continuously — when there was a loud bang as the casing sealing the unit exploded, letting loose a spray of chemicals and scalding-hot water. The force of the blast slammed into Johns, sending him flying.
His sister Pam says he told her it was "like Superman" as he sailed through the air and smacked into the wall behind him. He was covered in the spray coming from the unit, and the chemicals burned through his clothes, through his skin, and started killing his muscles as he moved to get himself out of the ammonia recycling unit.
He made for the emergency showers, struggling to control his shaking hands, his juddering limbs, while his heart slammed and rattled in his chest. Just needed to clean this stuff off. Then he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror — half of his face looked like raw meat; the skin was mangled and coming off the burned places over more than half his body — and was about to resume walking toward the shower when a co-worker saw him and called 911.
Johns told his story to lawyers a week after the accident occurred, tears spilling down his face. He told them how the casing around the unit was old, how things like that went unreported at the plant because they would cost the company money. Instead of replacing the casing entirely, company men had rigged up the repairs. Then, when he was changing the filter, the unit exploded.
Rusty Hardin and Bob Wynne, the Houston lawyers Roberson got in touch with a couple of days after the accident, sat around Johns's hospital bed recording the interview and taking notes while Roberson sat in the corner taking her own notes of what her brother said.
That was the first and last time he really talked about the explosion. It was also the beginning of the nightmares that would dog his dreams most nights for the final days of his life, his family says. Less than a month later, he was dead.
Only then did Dow report the explosion to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If Johns had survived the accident, the company would never have had to report the explosion at all, aside from making a notation in its self-reporting books. Fox continued to insist that Johns had been burned only with hot water.
Since Johns's death, there have been more accidents at chemical plants and refineries, such as the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 and injured more than 200. West took the lack of inspections and investigation of these industrial sites and put a bullseye on the existence of an industrial world in which employees may be allowed to work in unsafe conditions without much government interference or regulation, until something blows up. The same day West exploded, 12 men were injured in another accident, at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont.
Those are the kinds of incidents that grab the attention of OSHA, inspectors at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the public. But deaths and injuries like Johns's often get overlooked. When there's an injury, Texas workers' compensation law says that if the employee accepts the compensation, he loses the legal right to sue, according to Vaughan Stewart, a Lake Jackson lawyer who has represented workers against Dow many times since he moved to the area in 1968. However, if the employee dies, there's a loophole. In the wake of Johns's death, his family knew they were going to sue.
Brian Johns grew up the youngest in a big family reared by Frances Sowell, a single mother, in Texas City. They all called him "The Kool-Aid Kid" because in every photo, he seemed to have a cup of the stuff. The older kids let him play with his superhero action figures while they took care of the chores. His only job was to make the Kool-Aid they always had with dinner.
While Brian was pretending to be faster than a speeding bullet and learning how to play football and basketball, Dow Chemical was already a byword in America. The company, based in Midland, Michigan, was a behemoth in the chemical industry and a symbol of the Vietnam War because of its production of the napalm and Agent Orange used by American troops in chemical warfare.
Dow came to Texas during World War II, settling in Lake Jackson, the company town Dow created. The U.S. government sold Dow the land for its first toehold in the state at ten cents on the dollar. The plant was one of many factories that sprang up along the coast, fueled by government encouragement and the needs of the U.S. war machine.
Factories like Dow's were descendants of the Industrial Revolution, massive works of twisted metal that made the chemicals and materials that became the components of everything from paint to household cleaning supplies and just about any other product that had chemical ingredients. The rise of mass production required mass-produced chemicals for mass-produced products.
But the mass production that allowed things to be made both quickly and cheaply had another consequence. Machinery made it all possible, and there were no regulations in place to protect the people who worked with and around that machinery. There were always men and women looking for employment, but replacing machinery was more expensive. Without regulations and penalties to make injuries and deaths expensive, it was easier for companies to replace workers than to make workplaces safer.
Still, court battles throughout the 20th century slowly established workers' rights, and in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which required employers to provide safe working environments for their employees. The act also established OSHA, which was responsible for ensuring that workers operated in safe and healthy environments, and gave the new agency the power to investigate and fine companies if they violated the rules and endangered their employees.
That was back when labor unions still had enough clout to help get legislation passed, but the unions, never as powerful in Texas as elsewhere, were losing what little power they had. Dow employees once went on strike in the early 1970s, but the company greatly diminished the power of the unions by not hiring union contractors, Stewart said. After that, if an employee took a stand on issues like safety or repairs, there was no one to back him up, Stewart said.
Dow Deer Park Communications Director Tracie Copeland said she'd never heard of the company eliminating the union presence in such a way.
"That's not consistent with the Dow culture at all," she said.
Frances Sowell knew the plants and refineries could be dangerous. Growing up in Galveston, she was in school the day of the famous 1947 Texas City explosion, when a shipload of ammonium nitrate ignited, killing close to 600 people in what is still the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. She heard the blast, and on the way home she peered out the window of the school bus and saw the truckloads of bodies being carted away. The explosion was the stuff of nightmares, but the plants and refineries were simply a part of life, a part of the Texas City landscape.
The Texas City explosion helped create the Blocker Burn Unit at UTMB in Galveston. Dr. Truman Blocker was a plastic surgeon at the hospital when the explosion occurred, but he'd worked with burn patients during his stint in the U.S. Army during World War II. He applied what he'd learned there to the more than 3,000 injured at Texas City. After that, he set up one of the best burn units in the country. Sowell worked with him there as a burn nurse, learning the ins and outs of caring for burn patients, never imagining that one of the children she went home to each night would one day be a patient in that ward.
Brian was a small baby, but he loomed at 6'9" by the time he got to La Marque High School, where his skill on the basketball court got some recruiters interested in him. He didn't have the grades to go with the skills that might have taken him to one of the major universities, but he received an athletic scholarship and studied criminal justice at Lamar University in Beaumont. He was going into law enforcement to become a cop — which fit with his love of superheroes — but had trouble keeping up his grades, and then his college girlfriend got pregnant, and it was time to come home.
After knocking around from job to job, he got certified as an operator. For a guy without a degree, a job at a place like Rohm and Haas was a good opportunity, with good pay, good benefits and some security as long as he didn't step out of line. Johns had worked at other plants in the area before landing at Rohm and Haas a few years before Dow bought it. By then, Dow was the second-largest chemical company in the world, with a much-touted and burnished safety record, according to OSHA.
"Jobs at the chemical factories like Dow were good jobs for guys without their degrees. It was a good opportunity to make a good living," Stewart said.
Johns never talked much about his job, but he once told his son, Corey, about the kinds of chemicals he worked with. The plant could be a dangerous place, he told his son.
What makes these places more dangerous is the culture that surrounds the people working in them, said Steve Zeltzer, a labor activist based in California. The plants and refineries along the Texas coast have a code, an understanding of silence according to which employees don't report safety concerns or equipment that needs to be replaced.
"One of the things the American people don't understand is that we don't have to put up with it," Zeltzer said. "We're the wealthiest country in the world, and our workers are going to work in dangerous places and they're dying, but it doesn't have to happen."
Costing the company money was the kind of thing that wouldn't directly get you fired, but it was frowned upon. If you were injured, you went to the company doctors, not the hospital, since a trip to the hospital meant the company would have to record the injury for OSHA. If you had to go to the hospital, you should drive yourself — another way around reporting the injury to OSHA, Zeltzer said.
"Whether union or nonunion, they're afraid to speak out about serious health and safety problems in this country," Zeltzer said. "They won't get directly fired for speaking out, but they'll get people who've reported things by looking at the money and cutting their salary out."
When OSHA was established, it seemed as if labor safety was taking a giant stride forward, but in the years after its creation, it became apparent that OSHA was a watchdog agency that could watch over only a small number of the employees it was supposed to be protecting.
OSHA simply isn't big enough. Some states have established their own agencies to regulate worker safety, but Texas is among those that have chosen to rely on federal regulators instead. Today there are about 2,200 inspectors at OSHA who oversee more than 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces, making it impossible for agency investigators to get to every company before incidents like the explosions in Deer Park or West take place.
Besides, OSHA is a regulatory agency with agents who have the power only to file reports and impose fines for violations. A fine from OSHA comes minus any criminal charges that would penalize employers with jail time along with the fines — there's no risk that a company official will serve time for negligence at a plant — and the fining system goes up to only $7,000 for the most serious violations.
Also, OSHA investigators don't necessarily have the expertise to know what they should be looking for when they're inspecting a plant like the one at Deer Park, Daniel Horowitz, head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said.
The Chemical Safety Board was created in response to the Bhopal disaster in 1984, when a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India killed more than 3,000 people and exposed more than 500,000 to toxic gases and other chemicals. Union Carbide was sued by the Indian government, settling out of court for $470 million, and the company was purchased by Dow in 2001. The CSB was authorized by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and became operational in 1998. The agency is charged with investigating incidents such as Bhopal but has no regulatory power.
"The chemical industry is huge, strategically vital, but it's very complex and it requires a lot of technical sophistication to go into these places and to be able to understand what they're looking at," Horowitz said.
The CSB specializes in just these kinds of inspections, but the agency is so small that its inspectors rarely investigate incidents like the one that resulted in Johns's death because the board doesn't have the manpower or the funding. Finding people qualified to be inspectors who will actually choose to work for the government rather than get more lucrative jobs at one of the companies they'd be inspecting is difficult, Horowitz said.
"One thing I do know for certain is that if an incident at an individual site happens, there are often thousands of similar sites that have no way of knowing about what has happened or why something went wrong. And learning is key," Horowitz said.
OSHA started investigating the incident at Deer Park the week after Johns died, and the accident was officially reported. OSHA only investigates if three or more people are injured or if someone dies. If these requirements aren't met, OSHA lets companies self-report their accidents. If the agency investigates and finds willful serious violations, the law allows it to fine only up to $7,000 for a death and $70,000 for a death resulting from willful negligence.
In a 2002 Frontline interview on worker safety, Charles Jeffress, former assistant labor secretary for occupational health and safety in the 1990s, said federal law governing workplace safety is weak. The law was designed to prevent accidents, so the penalties are the same for violations regardless of whether someone has been injured as a result of a violation. Even if OSHA investigators find that a company has willful violations resulting in a death, the criminal violation is only a misdemeanor, Jeffress said.
"The law has inadequate teeth. And we are not doing enough to protect them," Jeffress said in the interview. "When OSHA was passed, it was not envisioned that OSHA would be an agency that punishes a company where people get killed. It was an agency that was going out to prevent accidents."
In January, six months after Johns died, OSHA investigators found seven violations at the Dow Rohm and Haas plant. The agency fined Dow $7,000 for not having Johns wear protective gear in the unit; $7,000 for not having process safety info about the unit; $4,000 for not inspecting and testing the equipment as often as the manufacturer advised; $7,000 for not correcting "deficiencies" in the equipment — the window into the unit should have been kept clear so that Johns could see into it before opening the cartridge — and $1,000 for not having its employees participate in the company's in-house investigation. OSHA also issued Dow a citation without any fine for not reviewing the operating procedure often enough. In total, the agency fined Dow $33,000 for the working conditions surrounding the explosion that killed a man.
Then OSHA dropped one of the fines, bringing the total financial penalty for Johns's death to $23,000, which Dow paid in April 2013.
Stewart started dealing with Dow after his wife, Sharron, got involved in the environmental movement against the company's air and water standards in the late 1960s when the couple moved to Lake Jackson and the air quality got so bad it was making Sharron and her daughter sick. Sharron got to know the environmentalists, and from there she met the labor people. The unions wouldn't be a power in Dow for much longer, but they knew where all the bodies were buried and could explain how things worked once you got inside the company gates. She fought Dow her way while Stewart, a trial lawyer who's now retired, fought it in his, going up against the company about ten times over the course of his career.
"Dow doesn't really respond to lawsuits. That's not the way to get their attention," he said.
Once, Stewart remembers, a Dow employee in Freeport fell from the second story of a ship and was knocked unconscious. Within hours, he said, Dow officials in suits showed up at his wife's door. They would take care of everything, they told her. Her husband, who was lying unconscious in a hospital, would continue to receive his salary, and he would even get a raise. If he died, she would receive money and benefits for the rest of her life. But if she started talking to lawyers, if she began meeting with journalists about the accident, it would be a different story.
"Then, they told her, they wouldn't be able to help her. It would be out of their hands. So she signs this agreement and then she can't ever publicly talk about what happened to her husband," Stewart said. "That's how they do things."
Copeland denied the story and said Dow officials would never handle an injured worker that way.
"I've never heard of anything like that happening, and I've never seen anything like that happen. Actually, I can't even imagine that happening here," she said.
An initial loss in court didn't seem to alarm Dow either, Stewart said. If the company's lawyers lost the first round, they almost always won on appeal.
"At the appeals court, it seemed like they would just look at the name on the top of the case and overturn it," he said.
He learned early on that a lawsuit wasn't the way to get Dow's notice but publicity tended to make company officials pay attention. The company prides itself on its image, on an impeccable safety record and a public reputation for being a "good place to work," so much so that you rarely see lawsuits against Dow. Instead, the company dealt with injuries more directly, Stewart said, and in a manner designed to keep the incidents quiet. Most families prefer to take the money and be done with it, he said.
On April 1, 2013, Frances Sowell and her grandson Corey filed a lawsuit against Dow; Rohm and Haas; and Johns's direct supervisors, Fox and Julio Rodriguez, for wrongful death, negligence and gross negligence. Copeland confirmed the lawsuit but declined to comment further on the matter. Calls to Fox and Rodriguez were not returned.
Dow lawyers filed a response to the suit on May 6, generally denying all of the family's allegations and stipulating that if Dow, Rohm and Haas, or Fox and Rodriguez are found liable, the defense has the right to allocate responsibility and to designate third parties also responsible for the damage. The lawyers also noted that damages must be capped.
When Sowell saw Johns's burns, the former burn nurse knew what she was looking at, knew what the odds were against his survival — a 45-year-old man burned over 65 percent of his body would have been a completely lost cause when she first started nursing, but even with advances in technology and treatment, his odds were less than 50-50. If the sheer strain being put on his body didn't kill him, his body was so weak that he would be vulnerable to almost every infection imaginable. Within days, his lines were getting infected and the nurses kept stacks of silver nitrate and heavily diluted bleach in his hospital room, dousing him with it every time they changed a bandage.
She knew what she was seeing, but she couldn't believe it. She was by his bed almost every minute, as if she could beat back death, ready to grapple with it there in the cold hospital room if it crept in and tried to take her youngest son.
Johns's mother sat in his hospital room praying the same prayer she'd had rattling steadily in the back of her mind, in a constant state of prayer since the night he was hurt.
"Please, God, let him live. A miracle, God. Please give me a miracle. Please, dear Lord, give me a miracle," she asked.
There was a smell in the room, the sickly sweet smell of rot. The bleach the nurses used to douse his wounds couldn't cover the unmistakable odor of infection anymore, a scent Herndon knows so well that it has become the calling card of death because the patient is rotting from the infection, the sepsis, a strain the body can't sustain.
Pam Roberson looked over her brother's body every time she went by the hospital, and she watched as he shrank, his muscles eaten away, while his toes shriveled like raisins.
He was lucid in the days just after the explosion, but as infection spread through his body, the whites of his eyes became murky yellow, Roberson noticed, and he didn't seem to know where he was or what had happened to him. Once he turned to her and demanded a pair of sandals. He was going to leave this place soon, and he needed some sandals, he told her. She ran out and finally found a pair of size-16 Nike flip-flops. Looking down at his shrinking feet, she wondered if they'd even fit him now.
By the time Johns went in for his last surgery, his moments of clarity were mostly gone. He'd been in the hospital for almost 30 days, enduring at least one operation a week as his medical team tried to fight the infection that was rotting his body. Herndon asked Sowell to be sure and be there when Johns came out of his next surgery to keep him calm. After he came out of that procedure, the nurses had him suspended on an air bed, face down, to let his backside heal.
He was still unconscious, but Sowell sat down and settled in to wait so she'd be the first person he saw when he woke. They were alone in the room, the steady beeps of his heart and blood pressure monitors ticking away. Then the machines started bleating and Sowell looked up, and in that same moment she was moving, pressing the button for a nurse while simultaneously trying to heave her son's enormous frame, to turn him onto his back so they could restart his heart. Even working with the other nurse, she couldn't flip him. By the time they got his heart going again, Sowell knew her son was gone.
Johns's family buried him the week after, and the guest book was filled with the names of Dow employees, both the men and women he worked with every day and executives who probably didn't even know her brother, Roberson thought. She looked them over, trying to let go of the gnawing feeling that many of them were there just to see the body. She told the undertaker to bury him in the sandals she'd bought. They had a closed casket.
Frances Sowell and Corey Johns can still barely stand to talk about his death, but Roberson makes a point of doing so. She looks for other incidents, tracking the explosion that injured employees at ExxonMobil in Beaumont, noting the accidents that are discussed by those who work in the plants but so rarely mentioned to outsiders.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Sowell hates to talk about it, but she can't forget it, and she can't understand why this happened to her son.
"I've learned about the conditions my child was working under in this big company all over the world," she said, glancing over at the mammoth photo of Brian, wide grin on his face, that his family placed next to his casket at the funeral. "They can't keep their employees safe, and it's just simple things to do. How much money do you have to make in order to care for the people who are responsible for making that money for you? The guys who are getting the benefits are stuck in their damned offices while the work my son did is dangerous. And they know it's dangerous. You should protect your workers. I just don't understand." She spit the words out, her normally soft voice growing hard as she spoke.
In the wake of the West explosion, OSHA investigators have said they are going to focus on inspecting plants and refineries before such things occur, but in order to do so, the agency will make fewer people available to investigate incidents like the one that killed Johns. If Johns had survived his injuries, the explosion that burned more than half his body would never have been investigated at all. Now, even a death at a plant may not get the attention of OSHA investigators. And families like Johns's will be left trying to find answers without any investigation at all.