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Tuesday update: Remaining TPC fire contained; hotline in place

The status of the ongoing fire at TPC Group Port Neches Operations as of Tuesday afternoon had not changed much from the previous 24 hours.

TPC spokesperson Sara Cronin said one fire was still burning but was contained, and Unified Command was still focused on mitigating the event. The cause still has not been determined.

“We won’t begin the investigation until the fire is over,” Cronin said. “We don’t speculate on any causes. We’re focused on remediating the fire.”

That has been the approach Unified Command has taken since two explosions occurred at the facility Nov. 27, leading to three injured workers, all of whom have been treated.

Unified Command is led by Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TPC officials and approximately 20 federal, state and local agencies.

Nederland Fire Chief Terry Morton said he had never taken on a blaze of such magnitude before the explosions.

“It’s a little overwhelming until you start getting to the scene to see what’s burning and make sure no one is hurt,” he said. “A fire of that magnitude is very overwhelming for the first hour for one department. Saving lives comes first and then you move on from there.”

The biggest challenge for Morton’s department has been providing enough manpower not to assist other crews in battling the blaze at TPC and keeping Nederland covered. The Nederland Fire Department includes 15 paid firefighters and 10 volunteers.

“I say 70 percent of our manpower resources were sent over to Port Neches for the first few hours,” Morton said. “As a need, we got more people in through the Sabine Neches Chiefs Association.”

Unified Command operation objectives, Branick said during a recent news conference, are “protection of life, protection of the environment and suppression of the fire. All of those operations have gone extremely well.”

The number of fires went from nine to three Saturday evening, then up to four Sunday morning to one remaining fire. A distillation tower at TPC fell inside the fence line late Saturday evening.

Branick said the plan was to let the remaining fire burn itself out, likening the containment to trying to douse a fire lit from a gas stove.

“If you were to hook up a Coleman stove with one of the propane tanks, turn it on and light the fire and then douse the fire, then the gas would continue to come into your room, which would be vapors that would not be helpful,” Branick said. “You would simply let the tank run out and let the fire go out by itself.”

Approximately four towers have either been compromised or have fallen, according to Branick. If any others fall, he said, they would not infringe on any other tanks or cause another explosion.

Huntsman Port Neches Operations will conduct a weekly emergency warning test at noon Wednesday. The alert test is not connected to the ongoing efforts at TPC.

TPC providing hotline

Professional counselors from Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas are staffing an emotional support hotline open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The hotline number is 409-727-6400, ext. 250. Calls received after hours will be directed to Spindletop Crisis Hotline at 800-937-8097, an affiliated local hotline.

Additional in-person follow-up sessions with counselors will be available as well if needed.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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