BC mayor, David Rutledge, reflects on horrific plant fire 40 years ago
July 21, 1978 started out as the previous days— it was already 85 degrees before sunup. My clothes were sagging from the 90 percent humidity.
Gulf Chemical wanted a new polyethylene unit up and running. Our crew were working the past several weeks of 12 to 16 hour days routinely.
That morning, my pipe fitter foreman lined up my apprentice, Allen Hebert, and me on our job for the day: find the leaks on a heat exchanger and fix them. The equipment was previously tested, but more leaks were found when the plant introduced ethylene gas feedstock.
After checking the line clearing and talking to the unit operators, we put our tags on the system and started gathering the tools we needed. The valving around the exchanger was open to the atmosphere for purging purposes.
As we tightened the bolts on the exchanger, some pulled up with hand wrenches and some did not. The stubborn ones would a “hammer wrench” to loosen them. By this time it’s morning break time. we headed back to the shop for a quick break and to get the necessary tools.
Back at the job site, prior to hammering on the wrenches, we noticed some ethylene gas was escaping through the open valves. We didn’t want to create a spark, so we didn’t start work until we found the unit operators, Clifford Bunch and John Robert Peveto, to see if they could further tighten the block valve.
We all headed to the exchanger area when the operators arrived. I can still see it in my mind’s eye as Allen and Clifford walked upstairs to where we were working on the grating floor above the block valve. John Robert and I headed to the block valve on the ethylene header so he could try to close it off a little more. The block valve was a control valve with a pneumatic operator and a manually operated valve wheel. We later discovered that it was also set up to go to the “wide open” position should anything fail on the control portion of the valve.
As John Robert pulled on the “cheater” to close the valve with the handwheel, I heard a loud “SNAP!” I instinctively turned away from the valve and John Robert.
The next thing I know, I found myself on my hands and knees with a deafening roar blocking out every other sound in the universe as the 350-plus psi ethylene gas gushed out of the open piping 10-feet above our heads. At this point I was in survival mode.
I lost track of John Robert who was nearly five feet from me and I certainly lost track of Allen and Clifford on the floor above me. All I could think about was getting out of where I was. That turned out to be more difficult than you can imagine.
The noise was deafening, the air was hot and brilliant white and the flames were consuming all the surrounding oxygen. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs and I was on all-fours. I tried standing up so I could run to get to oxygen and out of the heat. For some reason — maybe it was to stay as low and as far away from the flames as possible, or maybe it was plain old shock — I couldn’t seem to rise.
The next best thing was to fast-crawl the heck out of there. As I started to crawl, it seemed to be a mile and a half but what it was really only about 30 yards or more to the edge of the unit. It then dawned on me that this unit may explode if the flames caught something else on fire. That’s when I mustered every ounce of will power and stood up running.
After I had gotten away about 75 yards from the unit, I could feel my back and arms were hot. My new cotton T-shirt was probably on fire, so I peeled it off over my head while still trying to run.
For some reason, as I kept going, I turned back to look at the T-shirt. It was a little disconcerting to see something that was on my body two seconds earlier was lying in a white, brown, and black smoking pile. The thought of my T-shirt quickly left my mind as my back and arms were still hot, and the rest of my clothes were possibly be on fire.
An outfall canal ran through the plant, right on my path out of the unit. My plan was to jump into it to put out any other flames. Before I got to the canal, however, I came upon a large mud puddle, and I decided that would do as well as the canal that was still 100 yards away. I flopped into the puddle, rolled over once thinking that should put out the flames, got up and kept running.
As I headed down the road to our shop, my general foreman, Johnny Comeaux, had saw me running toward the shop with no shirt on. He and a driver jumped in the truck and raced to me. I got into the truck and we hit the gate at the back of the plant, headed for Orange Memorial Hospital.
As we turned onto Foreman Road, just outside the plant gate, I looked over at the unit I just left and watched the orange flames boil 300 feet or more into the air. The black smoke billowed even higher. At the emergency room, they got me into an exam room and Johnny told them to get ready because there may be more injuries coming.
Boots were kicked off as I entered the exam room. I laid down on my stomach, knowing my back was going to need some attention. I asked Johnny to call my wife at work and tell her. It was only later that I found out the toll this takes on someone to have to make a call like that.
While the emergency room swirled with activity and the clock seemed to stop, I had time to ponder the skin that had peeled off my left arm and was hanging lifelessly over my fingertips. At the same time, the rest of my back, face, arms and hands felt like they were still in the fire. As hot as my body felt, it seemed strange I was shivering like I was freezing to death. As I waited I could hear them bringing in another person then another.
As I lay on the exam table, the swirl of people and noise and activity continued, some loud orders were being given along with some hushed talk in the halls. I don’t know how long it was before Becky, my wife of five years and 11 days, came running into my room. I still remember the look of panic on her face, and I’ll carry that picture with me forever.
She held my “good” hand (which had some burns, but not too bad) for the duration of my time in the emergency room. I had no idea of the condition of the other guys while I was in there, but I could hear others talking to them and about them.
Allen’s father, Bruno Hebert, who also worked with us, came in. At the time I didn’t know how badly Allen was hurt, but Bruno came in and checked on me despite his son also being in mortal danger. To this day, that act of kindness, leaves me in tears and speechless. I can’t imagine my child severely injured and trying to comfort someone else.
While the nurses cut away the dead skin from my arms and hand, the doctor came in and told us “we” were being transferred to John Sealy Hospital by helicopter. At first, when they said “we” I thought Becky was going with me, but it was actually John Robert going with me. Later, they said it was 12:30 in the afternoon, the chopper hit the pad in Orange, they loaded John Robert first, and I waited in the bright, hot July afternoon sun while they completed that. Then it was my turn. I got what I guess you could call the “top bunk bed” for the flight.
We finally launched after another interminably long wait (probably five minutes) and headed to Galveston. When they strapped me into the stretcher, one strap was on my shoulder, others at the waist and feet.
As the chopper made its way down the beach road, I could see outside and watch the waves roll in on McFaddin and Crystal Beaches. The strap on my shoulders felt like it was going to slip down around my throat and choke me at any movement I made. The helicopter vibration and droning made me sleepy. I remember almost drifting off, then startling awake with the thought that if I fell asleep I might never wake up. That was the last time I thought about sleeping for a while.
On landing, John Robert got unloaded first as he was worse off than me. Finally, it was my turn.
As they put me on the gurney and wheeled me from the helipad to the ER, I could see my mother standing at the glass picture window, tears welled up in her eyes, wondering about her baby boy. That was another one of those haunting pictures from this whole episode that just as vivid today as 40 years ago. I finally got inside the ER. As they wheeled me past Mom, I was able to tell her I was okay. I think it helped her somewhat to hear it from me and not someone in a white coat.
In the ER, they prepped me for what was to come and for a really long and uncomfortable night. I got some relief with a catheter that was to become my “friend” for the next few weeks. A nurse came over with a pair of what looked like strange tweezers and began popping the blisters around the periphery of the burned areas.
I remember thinking, “Mom told us not to pop those blisters” when I was a kid. It didn’t hurt, at least not in comparison, but it surely flew in the face of “Dr. Mom’s” advice. Strange what goes through your mind sometimes. After they worked on me for awhile, they rolled me out into a hallway, upstairs I think, like I was headed to a room.
While parked in the hallway, somehow my father and brother showed up, looking really concerned, more than I’d ever seen my Dad. He asked me how I was doing, so in trying to lighten the mood a little and reassure him I was still with him, I said “Oh, I’m ok. Just waiting here for the bus.”
With that I think he smiled a little and knew I was going to make it.
When I finally got to the Burn Ward, or the Torture Chamber as it came to be known, they had a nice surprise for me. I got to take a whirlpool bath.
That in itself didn’t sound too great, but they then told us about the surprise the whirlpool had in store for us: they poured about 10 gallons of Clorox into the water to help kill any infection that might be looking for a home. And while you’re in the whirlpool, they take a wash cloth and start scrubbing the burned areas. That’s really not fun at all.
To this day I’m not crazy about a whirlpool for fear it may have Clorox in it and an orderly with more tweezers and what I believe was a Brillo pad hidden inside a wash cloth. Once that “fun” was over, they moved me to a gurney where they applied dressings, but not before they applied a cream to the burned areas. This cream contained what I think was an acid whose sole function was to eat away at the dead skin the wash cloth didn’t get. Once that’s done, it’s off to the ward for “rest” and hopefully sleep.
The next 14 days were a blur of waking at 4 a.m. for blood samples, 6 a.m. whirlpool baths, then new dressings with that acid compound, back to the ward to try to eat, try to sleep, try to stay awake long enough to visit with Becky and my sister Winnie. She had to come to “keep Becky company”, in other words fret about her baby brother.
I vaguely remember having eating utensils jammed into the bandages so I could manipulate a fork. The best meal was a canned drink called Sustacal, or something like that. It was nutrition-in-a-can that was supposed to keep me from dropping too much weight. They tasted like strawberry milkshakes, and I drank one every time they offered it.
After the first week, I started becoming more conscious of what was going on, I was staying awake longer and sleeping less. The whirlpools and acid bandages continued, but maybe you can get used to pain.
Of the four people in my ward, only John Robert and myself were hurt in an industrial accident. We had a change of roommates several times, but we two stayed together until I left, and of course our families got to know each other, laugh together, worry some, just plain be there for each other.
One day the guy in our ward decided that he didn’t want to go through the whirlpool bath another time. His father was called and drove in from Mississippi to try and reason with his son. After several days he took the whirlpool but was pretty combative about the whole process. The rest of us knew exactly what he meant and why he didn’t want to cooperate. We all probably said the same thing to ourselves but realized the only good outcome would be through following the hospital’s “plan.”
As the days dragged on, we found out the light at the end of our tunnel would start to glow when we got to the point we would have our skin grafts. My graft day finally arrived, and I was so happy when 6 a.m. got there because nobody came to get me for a whirlpool bath! Hallelujah, no more pain!
The grafting procedure was only mildly painful, with the drawknife-looking apparatus cutting the top layer of skin off my upper thigh while they injected it with novocaine when I told them I could feel the knife cutting. They applied the skin graft onto the back of my arms, bandaged my arms and the upper thigh donor site and sent me back to the ward.
Somewhere in here, someone came from Bridge City with my daughters Kara and Annie (this was before Erin was born). I couldn’t hold them, but I could touch them and pat them on the head and kneel down to kiss them. That was the best day!
The next five days went by fairly quickly. They fitted me with an elastic suit to compress the skin and prevent excess scar tissue from building up, and at last I was set free. John Robert got out about two weeks later, more scarred up and with more grafts than me, but thankfully we were both alive.
It was after about a week of being in the hospital that they told us about the fate of Allen Hebert and Clifford Bunch. Clifford didn’t make it out of the plant, he died at the scene. Allen made it to the Orange ER. While they were working on John Robert and me, they were making Allen “comfortable.”
When Orange ER called for the copter from Galveston, they spoke to the Burn Unit doctors about our conditions. John Sealy doctors told the Orange doctors to send John Robert and me, and to do what they could to make Allen “comfortable” as there would be nothing they could do to save him, even if he survived the helicopter ride. That’s the reason I got the chopper ride and the quick attention that saved me versus the two-hour ambulance and ferry boat ride to Galveston.
Later on, after we left in the helicopter, which I’m pretty sure Allen’s dad heard leaving, Allen too passed away.
Looking back over the 40 years since that hot July day, I think about the four of us, caught up in the same horrific event, and how things changed on that day. I think of Bruno’s kindness toward me while the life was slipping out of his son, of Clifford’s wife and children who would never see their loved one walking through the door in the evening after work. I think of John Robert and the massive scarring on his hands and how luck later smiled on him when he won a Texas Lottery.
I also think of the worry on the faces of my father and brother until they heard my voice. I remember how my sister took a leave from her job to come stay at the hospital with Becky and me for 19 long, agonizing days. How they endured the cries of others’ pain that filled the air and the stench of burned flesh accompanied every breath.
I think of the tears in my mother’s eyes as she watched them wheel me into the ER, not knowing if her baby was ok or not. I remember not holding my children for what seemed like four forevers. And I vividly remember seeing my bride’s face as she flew around the corner, swinging off of the door frame to give her a little bit more speed to get her into my ER exam room to be by my side.
To this day I don’t know what to think of it all. As time allows the memory of the pain to ebb and the permanent discoloration of the skin fades ever so slightly, I wonder what it would have been like had this not happened.
Then I remember that time is an arrow that only points in one direction, and you can’t go back or change what has transpired. So all I can do now is go forward, play the hand I’ve been dealt, and make sure I hug those close to me every chance I get.