It was early Friday morning last January, in the Westbranch area of Houston.
Gilberto Mendoza Cruz was unconscious as the roof fell. The adjacent commercial
factory, Watson Grinding, had collapsed.
Cruz went to the emergency department and was soon home. He relocated his
wife and their two children to the hotel after their house had been burned.
Two weeks later, according to his lawyer, Cruz died of those burns. The
blast ended up destroying more than 470 homes and businesses, crippling
at least 18 people and killing three.
Frank Peters said he was focusing on home renovations down the street when
he was hurled at a building. The explosion convinced him that a hydrogen
weapon went off. He thought it was a dirty bomb or something—terror.
Peters had newly renovated his house, and now he was blown apart. It was
really like nothing he could ever picture the house was demolished. He
was devastated and internally, always trying to measure what had just happened.
Four houses downstairs, Julio Granillo watched T.V. Although his wife was
dressed for her early morning shift. After the initial impact of the explosion,
Granillo rushed to his son's place. He opened the door and wondered
if everyone was okay.
After ensuring that his son was in control, Granillo rushed downstairs,
where the windows were smashed, and the front door was blown out. He went
out to see what was going on.
He saw his neighbors coming outside, and he turned to the east side, where
there was smoke.
This form of smoke was a common sight for Houstonians—the aftershocks
of the factory explosion. But Peters and his neighbors didn't realize
it was going to happen here in the Westbranch.
A year after the blast, Julio Granillo is also waiting for insurance funds
to go through to rebuild his home. Upstairs, half of the roof is now weakened,
and the insulation from the attic is exposed.
Peters, Granillo, and hundreds of their neighbors had their homes damaged
or demolished by the explosion. One year later, many people are either
struggling to restore their houses with broken walls and makeshift help
while waiting for insurance dollars to come in or attempt to rebuild themselves.
In the meanwhile, Watson Grinding and Production have applied for bankruptcy.
Numerous cases are moving into the trials.
Over the last year, the Watson entities have collaborated closely with
state and federal authorities to review the occurrence and obtain a better
picture of what triggered the event. Watson disingenuously explains that
it is in everyone's best interest to learn what went wrong to ensure
nothing like this continues in the future. The reality is that Watson
has been intentionally delaying the whole ordeal to avoid liability.
As the industrial warehouse collapsed, it was Houston's fourth big
chemical accident in less than a year. And as catastrophic as it was,
any other chemical incidents in Texas did not come near in terms of harm,
death, everyday life destruction, and environmental repercussions.
Residents ask what, if anything, is being achieved to deter more?
Houston has no zoning, which ensures that people will move close to a business
that handles hazardous chemicals—and they may not even know about
it. It's not Houston's fault, however. It's Texas, man.
In the 1980s, the federal government enacted what became recognized as
the Disaster Response and Collective Right to Information Legislation,
which specifies that the public has a right to know what dangerous substances
are contained in their communities. The aim was to support residents and
municipal municipalities' plans for chemical incidents.
Since 9/11, national protection became a key concern. In Texas, state authorities
claimed that toxic substances presented a danger to homeland security.
If the public had access to this knowledge, the logic went, Texas would
be susceptible to a terrorist assault. Homeland protection was thought
to be more critical.
This is permissible by state law—a part of the Texas code requires
details to be concealed if perceived as a domestic security threat.
Our intern has spent a month attempting to figure out what substances are
contained in the area of his house. He doesn't realize why
Local authorities, such as fire stations, have this material, but the public
and media representatives can't have the same access.
They have the right to deny such details whether they suspect that the
content may be used for weapons or illicit reasons, explains Houston Fire
Chief Sam Peña. As fire chief, he has access to all the facts,
and he replied there should be a means to let the citizens know without
Federal law is very straightforward that states that the population has
a right to know, and HFD can provide them with details to make a proper
judgment about whether to go or what happens, or what risks there are
in their communities.
In this state legislative session, the city hopes to petition the Texas
Environmental Protection Board to amend any wording or come up with a
fix. Simple details about toxic substances will be published to the public.
Right now, though, municipal councils can't do anything more than
lament about this law. But the City Council of Houston allowed one amendment
during the Watson blast.
People asked City Council Members in the months following the blast, what's
going to happen? What's going to happen? Are we making enough adjustments
to make sure this doesn't happen again?
It reflects the district where the blast took place. The Council strengthened
some of the rules for toxic goods industries, but Council Members explain
that much needs to be accomplished at the state and federal level.
However, other problems, such as buildings that hold dangerous chemicals
that neighbors don't know about. That's what scares residents
because several buildings sit there because nobody knows what's going
on in those buildings.
City authorities are preparing to make more improvements, and the criminal
probe into the Watson blast is also underway. The Environmental Control
Board is a small investigation body.
It investigates chemical disasters, but it has little authority to enact them.
Around a dozen, experts are working to identify the root causes of a chemical
explosion and better establish the broad spectrum of reasons that contributed
to it and how to avoid a future disaster. The Board also makes recommendations—which
are weighted based on an empirical ethos. Historically, a variety of CSB
guidelines have been implemented, contributing to cleaner workplaces and
Even the guidelines are exactly that—the recommendations. They are
directed to just about everyone and everyone who could make a crucial
change: businesses, business associations, state and federal governments.
The guidelines are completed at a rate of around 80%. Yet more than 130
were not there nationwide.
Rick Engler, who was serving on the CSB for a five-year period that concluded
last year, doesn't believe tragedies like the Watson explosion are
going anywhere soon.
Although several families have relocated back, some homes remain destroyed
and boarded. He believes further accidents are likely until there is a
strong effort from the state of Texas and the leadership of the U.S. government—to
step ahead, not back, on chemical protection concerns.
Frank Peters, a neighbor of the Westbranch who believed the nuclear bomb
had gone off, fled to his dad's house after the blast. His insurance
provider has not yet charged his claim in a year, and he doesn't believe
It is part of one of the pending litigation against Watson Grinding and
When he purchased the property, he had a ton of houses to choose from if
he knew anything like that. If he learned Watson had a chemical like that,
he would have taken a different choice.