Officials with the Houston division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced at a Jan. 24 press conference the ATF's national response team will travel to Houston to investigate a major explosion that occurred at warehouse on Gessner Road in northwest Houston.
Fred Milanowski, Special Agent in Charge of ATF's Houston division, said the national response team consists of experts from across the U.S., including chemists, explosive experts, fire research experts and electrical engineers. The team worked the scene of a major explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in 2013 and processed each of the scenes of an Austin serial bombing in 2018.
"They are ATF’s most elite team, so we are bringing the best people from across the country in to make sure that we know exactly what happened during this incident," Milanowski said.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the number of fatalities from the explosion has not increased since two fatalities were announced earlier this morning.
"That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people that no one knows were in the area, so we cannot say whether or not there are more victims," Acevedo said. "But right now ... it appears there’s only two victims."
Acevedo said there is a high probability the two fatalities were employees of Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, the company where the explosion took place, but said he could not confirm that with total certainty.
"The company involved has been nothing but cooperative with us," he said.
Gessner Road between Genard and Clay roads will remain closed for the rest of the day, Acevedo said. Two nearby neighborhoods—Westbranch and Carverdale—were affected by the blast, he said. No one will be allowed in those two neighborhoods aside from residents who live within them while an investigation is ongoing over what could be the next four to five days, Acevedo said.
Updated 9:50 a.m.
At least two fatalities have been confirmed related to an explosion that took place the morning of Jan. 24 at a manufacturing plant on Gessner Road, north of Clay Road, according to Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. The Houston Police Department has initiated a criminal investigation in partnership with the Houston Fire Department's arson division, Acevedo said at a press conference.
"We have no reason to believe, no evidence, at this point that terrorism was involved, [nor] any evidence that a criminally intentional act was involved. Part of the protocol is to always conduct a criminal investigation," Acevedo said.
The investigation into the immediate area affected by the explosion is likely to cover four to five days, Acevedo said, during which time the scene will be under police containment and control. Roving patrols will be covering the site to prevent potential looting of homes that were damaged and evacuated, he said.
Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena said HazMat crews have canvassed the neighborhood immediately west of the blast site and have searched around 190 homes, some of which were knocked off of their foundations. A temporary shelter has been set up at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 4703 Shadowdale Lane, Houston.
Pena said the explosion is believed to have been caused by a propylene gas leak at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing. He said the valving has been secured on the 2,000-gallon tank of propylene, and there is no active leak. He said HFD will begin a primary search of the building after a small fire at the site burns out.
"We decided to let that burn off on its own," Pena said. "We don’t want to go in there and add water and create other hazards. We are choosing to monitor and contain those [fires] until they burn out."
The debris area is believed to be about a quarter of a mile, Pena said, and there are no indications for concerns about air quality.
Acevedo asked residents who felt the blast or live within one mile of the blast zone to search their homes and yards for debris.
"If you find anything, don’t touch it; just call HPD so we can respond," he said.
Camille Garcia, director of communication and public relations for the Insurance Council of Texas, said homeowners whose homes have been damaged should conduct any immediate repairs that are needed but should keep receipts of any repairs that are done. If residents are evacuated or cannot stay in their homes due to damage, she said to also keep receipts from any hotel stays, which could also be covered, depending on the policy.
"The damage I'm seeing, whether it's windows blown out or even fire damage, it's the type of things that would be covered by homeowners insurance," she said.
Posted 7:55 a.m.
An explosion took place at around 4:20 a.m. Jan. 24 at a business in the 4500 block of Gessner Road, north of Clay Road in northwest Houston.
Officials with the Houston Fire Department Hazmat Team have responded to the scene and several roads have been blocked off. In a post on Twitter, Fire Chief Samuel Pena said no evacuation has been ordered at this time, but HFD officials are urging people to avoid the area between Gessner Road and Steffani Lane and between Genard and Clay roads.
This is still an active scene. Avoid the area.
No evacuation order given at this time.
We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info. @HoustonFire HazMat team is on scene and monitoring. https://t.co/OUkT1T934I
— Chief Samuel Peña (@FireChiefofHFD) January 24, 2020
Officials with Cy-Fair ISD announced Bane Elementary School and Dean Middle School will both be closed today due to limited access, and students at other nearby schools will remain indoors due to air quality concerns.
HFD officials said one person has been transported to the hospital. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said officials are looking to determine the source of the explosion, which he said was felt as far as 14 miles away, based on social media accounts.
On Twitter, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there are currently no air quality concerns, as the explosion involved Propylene, which dissipates into the air.
No significant problems with air quality in the area surrounding the industrial site explosion in northwest part of the city, according to @FireChiefofHFD: Propylene dissipates into the air. Please avoid area due to traffic, debris, @HoustonFire response.
— City of Houston (@HoustonTX) January 24, 2020
A video obtained by ABC 13 in Houston shows the moment the explosion occurred at the site, identified as Watson Grinding.
This story will be updated with more information as it becomes available.
Matt Dulin contributed to this report.