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Could It Happen Again?

Brenham Explosion Sends Emotional Shock Waves

by Allison Seale


The explosion that rocked the peaceful hills near Brenham on April 7 was felt as far away as Galveston. The emotional shock waves, however, continue to be felt. And, as folks in the Brazos Valley band together in support of the little community of Wesley – a town who had one-third of its population of 60 injured in the disaster – the question raised is: Could this happen again?

As word of the explosion spread, emergency crews and volunteers from as far away as Houston converged on Wesley, a town about seven miles south of Brenham on FM 109 and County Road 19. What they found seemed to defy belief. Tops of trees had been ripped off and branches lay splintered and scorched on pastures that hours before had been green and spotted with wildflowers. Homes had been moved from their foundations and toppled, their contents strewn for hundreds of feet.

Apparently, the explosion was caused when a large cloud of liquid propane gas escaped from a 350,000 gallon salt-dome storage facility that had been over-filled. Texas Regional Railroad Commission investigators said that a sensor valve might have also failed. At press time, the accident had resulted in the deaths of three and had left 17 others injured. Workers who were called to the site to investigate the leak reported seeking a large cloud of gas. They stopped at a local house to telephone company officials, and one worker ran down the road to turn a school bus around. About the same time, a card driven by Gloria Diver passed into the cloud of gas that had accumulated in a gully where County Road 19 passes. Not far away, Jane Meinen telephoned her father shortly before 7 a.m. to describe a strong odor in her home. He directed her to call 9-1-1; her call went in at 6:59 a.m., and after hanging up with the emergency service, she telephoned her father again. She was on the phone with him when the explosion occurred and ripped her trailer home to shreds.

Meinen’s 5-year-old son, Derrick, died instantly when he was thrown 150 feet from his home. Jane was also thrown from the house. After rescuers found her, she was flown by life flight helicopter to Houston’s Hermann Hospital for treatment of her extensive injuries. The Gloria Driver and the two passengers were also flown to Hermann Hospital. Diver, her daughter Delores Medve, and Medve’s 3-year-old son Travis were all severely burned when the explosion blew their car off the road and flattened it. Diver died of her injuries three days later, and Delores Medve died five days after the explosion. Delores had miraculously walked away from the crushed car clutching her son before collapsing on a driveway 200 feet away.

In the aftermath of the disaster, state agencies and Red Cross workers sorted through the rubble and remnants of the little community trying to find answers and appraise damage.

Washington County Judge Dorothy Morgan said appraisers have estimated $3.5 million in property damage and in Austin County, initial estimates are $3.1 million. A total of 16 homes were destroyed, 150 were damaged; 10 cars were demolished and some 40 head of livestock died. But monetary estimates dwarf the emotional scars that will take years to heal.

At press time, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Texas Railroad Commission still had not concluded the ignition point of the explosion. Some felt as if Diver’s car might have set off the explosion, while others looked at the way Meinen’s home exploded to conclude it was the ignition site. Who will ultimately be held responsible for the explosion is unknown. It appears, however, that blame will ultimately be assigned to either Seminole Pipeline Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the owners of the underground storage facility; or to Coastline Gas Company, one of the owners of the 6-inch pipeline that fed the dome storage facility.

Gary Garrison, a spokesman for the TRC, said that their investigation is now centered on the injection well used by Seminole to move gas products into and out of the salt dome cavern. Investigators believe there may have been a release of liquefied petroleum gas product from the storage cavern prior to the April 7 explosion. Both companies were found to be in violation of state regulations requiring them to report any gas leak within two hours. Coastline authorities didn't report the leak until almost three hours after the explosion, while Seminole never officially reported a leak.

Some have raised accusations that both companies did not act quickly enough when alarms indicated problems. An alarm showing a shift in a valve went off in Coastline offices at 4 a.m. the morning of the explosion, and Seminole received warnings of dangerous levels of gas near the salt dome at six that morning.

Garrison said that this has been an unusual case so far. "We haven’t seen (an explosion) like this before," he said. Normally, an explosion occurs when a line is damaged by injury to the line, as with someone digging or otherwise breaking a gas line.

It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to a most tragic ending. Had the leak been on a natural gas line, railroad commission authorities said the gas probably would have dissipated without incident. However, since liquid propane is heavier than air, it remained close to the ground and collected in the gully that ran near the Washington and Austin County line, near the Meinen home.

There are 28 pipelines running through Brazos County carrying petroleum products. Six of these carry liquid propane gas – the type involved in the April 7 explosion. What is even more frightening for the citizens of Bryan/College Station is that the nearest salt dome storage facility is just 8 miles away in Millican – approximately the same proximity Brenham was to last month’s disaster.

All agree that, had an explosion with the intensity of the one in Wesley occurred in a more populated area, the death and injury toll would almost certainly have been higher. Hopefully, as more becomes known about why this accident happened, more can be done to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.


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