Multiple fire agencies used foam to contain a large plant fire along FM 1127 in Shepherd, Texas, that left one worker injured Wednesday morning.
In an evening update, officials said crews were still working to put out hotspots and would remain on site throughout the night to monitor any fire that may pop up. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it would work with contractors on remediation and cleanup of the site.
The San Jacinto County Precinct 2 Constable posted photos of the thick, black smoke coming from the area at about 8:45 a.m.
At about 8:17 a.m., authorities said they received reports of a possible explosion at Sound Resource Solutions, which reportedly makes glue and paint remover solvents. A source told Eyewitness News that a 1,000-gallon propane tank was in the middle of the fire, and a four-inch natural gas main was under the ground.
According to preliminary information, the worker was on the forklift when he noticed there were chemicals leaking from a container. When he reportedly went to lift the container, he noticed there was a fire and then an ignition. A full investigation into the incident is underway.
The operations manager for Sound Resource Solutions told ABC13’s Rosie Nguyen that she had been with the injured employee most of Wednesday. She said he was first transported to an emergency room in Cleveland and then transferred to Memorial Hermann in downtown Houston.
The manager said the worker suffered first-degree burns to his face and neck, as well as second and third-degree burns to both arms. She clarified that he would be monitored at the hospital overnight.
The employee is said to be in his 20s and has only been employed with the company for about a week, according to the operations manager.
Officials clarified that of the nearly 40 people employed, only 19 employees were working at the time. All employees were said to be accounted for, and no other injuries were reported.
Authorities said flammable liquids, diesel, turpentine, and other chemicals were involved in the fire. Some chemicals are reportedly known to be toxic.
Shelter-in-place orders lifted
Residents within a one-mile radius of the fire were asked to shelter in place. Those areas included San Jacinto and Polk counties.
As of 2:36 p.m., the shelter-in-place orders in Polk County and San Jacinto were lifted, and authorities said HVAC systems could be turned back on at people’s discretion.
After conducting an air quality monitoring operation in Polk County, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said it did not pick up any high readings. However, the public is asked not to linger outdoors, especially small children and those with respiratory illnesses and other health problems.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has yet to complete its report.
School districts impacted
The San Jacinto County Office of Emergency Management said 31 students at Wildwood Private School, located along FM 1127, were safely evacuated through a pasture by 9:15 a.m.
Shepherd ISD officials said there are about 1,900 kids in the district, and reportedly in class during the fire. All students were reported safe and were no longer asked to shelter in place.
In an afternoon update, the district said the incident prevented buses from taking their usual route, stating the following:
“(Wednesday’s) incident at the chemical plant on 1127 is preventing our buses from traveling down Hwy 59 between 223 and the Trinity River bridge. Students who live along these areas will need to be picked up by a parent or guardian. Students can be picked up now or at the normal dismissal time. Please reach out to your student’s campus if you have questions.”
The Goodrich Independent School District said it evacuated students on the advice of Polk County Emergency Management Services to Onalaska ISD. While a map shows the school is about six miles from the plant site, which was not in the shelter-in-place zone, the campus was in the direct path of the smoke.
Superintendent Daniel Barton said when they got the call to evacuate, they loaded the 269 kindergarten to 12th-grade students up on four buses and drove them to Onalaska Junior-Senior High School. He said from the time of the call to driving away took approximately 15 minutes.
“Our community has done a great job and was patient and allowed us to get here, and we immediately notified them, and they’ve been picking up since,” Barton said. “It has really been a blessing for the whole community that it actually went very smooth because you always think you have a great plan, but sometimes it doesn’t turn out that well, unfortunately. But this time, it did.”
Those students were returned to Goodrich to finish their school day or be picked up by their parents.
Livingston ISD said it placed all campuses on hold out of an abundance of caution and employed emergency protocols to ensure student and staff safety.
The district said when on “hold,” students are trained to clear the hallways and remain in their area or room until an “all clear” is announced. Adults and staff then must close and lock doors and account for all students.
Onalaska ISD said it did not shelter in place, as it was not in the path of the plume. Both Leggett and Corrigan-Camden school districts said they sheltered in place.
According to the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative website, 404 customers out of 14,614 in San Jacinto County are still out of power. It appears emergency personnel may have asked for the power to be cut as crews work the scene.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the fire sparked complete closures of US-59 from FM 1988 to Exit 451B. But in a 4:50 p.m. update, officials said the southbound lanes of the highway had been reopened.
Some of the detours include Exit 451B in Shepherd and FM 1988 in Polk County.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office also reported that traffic was shut down at US-190 and US-59. Depending on which way you are traveling, drivers will be rerouted to State Highway 156 or I-45.
FM 1127 was reopened to residents only, the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday evening.
FM 3278 is reportedly not open to traffic unless proof of residency is provided.
Officials did not give a timeline on when the roads would reopen but said it would be soon.