The Explosion At Texas City

2005 Refinery Explosion In Texas Killed 15, Injured 170

Next week, one of the world's largest oil companies, BP, will go to court in Galveston, Texas, to face a young woman who says the company killed her parents. As correspondent Ed Bradley reports, the woman's parents were among 15 oil workers who died in an explosion last year at BP's refinery in Texas City, Texas. At least 170 others were also injured in the blast. It was the worst workplace accident in this country since 1989.

60 Minutes spent the last three months investigating the explosion at Texas City, and what we found was a failure by BP to protect the health and safety of its own workers, even though the company made a profit of $19 billion last year.

60 Minutes also found evidence that BP ignored warning after warning that something terrible could happen at Texas City.

The BP refinery in Texas City extends over nearly two square miles on the outskirts of Galveston. It's the third largest refinery in the U.S. On March 23, 2005, BP employees and contract workers began an especially dangerous procedure: re-starting a unit that had been down for repairs. They began to fill a tower with gasoline. The tower overflowed, and the excess gas flowed into a back-up unit, which then also overflowed and sent a geyser of gasoline into the air. Pat Nickerson, a 28-year veteran of the Texas City refinery, was on site that day, driving his truck to an office trailer.

"I looked down the road. It looked like fumes, like on a real hot day, you see these heat waves coming up and then, I saw an ignition and a blast. Then my windshield shattered. The roof of the vehicle I was driving caved in on me," Nickerson recalls.

The plume of gas had formed a massive vapor cloud on the ground, and an idling truck likely had ignited the fumes. The blast pulverized several office trailers full of workers parked nearby.

Nickerson began digging through the wreckage looking for survivors. "Out of the corner of my eye, there was somebody on the ground," he remembers. "A guy named Ryan Rodriguez, and he was just kind of staring at me. He couldn't move because his face was so, you know, deformed and everything from the blast. And some, you know, bones and stuff that were you know protruding from his chin."

Nickerson says Rodriguez eventually died in the ambulance.

Twenty-one-year-old Eva Rowe was driving to Texas City to visit her parents, who worked in one of those trailers.

"I was at a gas station about 45 minutes away. Some man inside said that the BP refinery had exploded," Rowe remembers. "I called my mom. And my mom didn't answer, and that's not like my mom. She always answered."

It was hours before Rowe learned what had happened. "A worker who actually worked at the plant collapsed to the floor crying, telling me he was so sorry that he couldn't find my parents, that he'd been looking for them since the explosion happened. So then I knew," she recalls.

Eva Rowe's parents were among the 15 who died that day in Texas City.

"My parents were my best friends, they're all I had. My life ended that day. BP ruined my life. It ended my life. That day I had to start all over," Rowe tells Bradley.