In the aftermath of the explosion, BP blamed the disaster mostly on operator error and fired six employees. 60 Minutes went to Texas City to investigate further. BP officials gave the 60 Minutes team a tour of the refinery, but they declined our request for an on-camera interview. They referred our team to their own report on the explosion, which concluded there was "no evidence of anyone consciously or intentionally taking actions or decisions that put others at risk."
But when 60 Minutes spoke to the chief government official who has been investigating the explosion, she told Bradley that is not true.
"The problems that existed at BP Texas City were neither momentary nor superficial. They ran deep through that operation of a risk denial and a risk blindness that was not being addressed anywhere in the organization," says Carolyn Merritt, who was appointed by President Bush to be chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency which investigates all major chemical disasters.
"These things do not have to happen. They are preventable. They are predictable, and people do not have to die because they're earning a living," Merritt says.
Asked if she thinks this accident could have been easily prevented, Merritt says, "Absolutely."
Over the past 18 months, Merritt's investigators found problems at Texas City just about everywhere they looked: antiquated equipment, corroded pipes about to burst, and safety alarms that didn't work.
"There were three key pieces of instrumentation that were actually supposed to be repaired that were not repaired. And the management knew this," she says.
"Nothing was done about it?" Bradley asks.
"They authorized the startup knowing that these three pieces of equipment were not properly working," Merritt replies.
"So you had critical alarms, critical safety mechanisms which were known by management to be faulty, and they weren't fixed?" Bradley asks.
"That's correct," Merritt says.
That, says Merritt, is just part of what went wrong in Texas City. BP's own rules require office trailers to be parked at a safe distance from dangerous operations, but BP had placed trailers full of workers in an open area, right next to the unit being filled with gasoline. BP also failed to tell the workers in those trailers about the dangerous operation about to take place close by.
"There was not a thing said about that unit starting up," says Pat Nickerson.
"So if I understand you correctly, that morning there was a safety meeting. The plant was about to start up the unit, which is an especially dangerous procedure, but none of the workers were told about this at the safety meeting?" Bradley asks.
"Nothing was said," Nickerson says.
Asked how many people were at the meeting, Nickerson says, "Three, four hundred people."
"Placing a trailer during a startup operation that's going to be full of people without any warning is the telltale sign that you've lost that understanding and realization of the very risk of what you do," says Merritt.