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At least one dead in Louisiana chemical plant explosion

June 13, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON -- At least one person died and another is missing and presumed dead after an explosion Thursday at a petrochemical plant in the central Louisiana town of Geismar, authorities said.

Another 49 people were removed from the plant by ambulance, according to Jean Kelly, a spokeswoman for the state's department of environmental quality, which responded to the explosion. She said 300 workers were evacuated at the time of the blast.

The explosion occurred at about 8:37 a.m. CDT at the Williams Geismar Olefins plant, leading officials to notify local emergency managers, activate emergency shut-down valves and isolate the unit, according to a company statement. After the explosion, a boiler at the plant caught fire, according to a statement on the Iberville Parish Facebook page.

Kelly told The Times the fire was under control.

“The only burning is from the flare at this time. They are assessing the facility and still don’t know the cause of the fire or the explosion at this time,” Kelly said.

She said multiple agencies have responded to the scene, including officials from the state police and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was expected to release more information at a briefing within the hour near the site of the explosion.

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer released a statement noting that she has contacted the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about the incident and that they are "actively assessing the explosion"

"I intend to follow this situation closely and have asked for updates as they become available," Boxer said.

According to a Williams company statement: “We are currently focused on the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors and the local community who are responding to the situation. Our emergency-response crews are thoroughly trained to respond to these types of incidents and are diligently performing their work with their first priority being the safety and well-being of people in and around the area.”

It was not clear how many people work at the plant or were injured in the explosion and ensuing fire. Williams officials did not return calls Thursday. Local routes to the plant were closed, according to the company statement.

“We are in the process of accounting for all personnel. Injuries have been reported, the number and extent of those injuries is not known at this point,” the statement said.

Multiple people were taken from the plant to local hospitals Thursday, according to Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of health and hospitals.

Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain told the Associated Press that he did not know how many people were hurt, but saw ambulances taking "a couple folks" from the plant, which is about 20 miles south of Baton Rouge. Cain did not return calls Thursday.

Immediately after the explosion, local officials issued a shelter-in-place order for those within a two-mile radius of the plant, but that has been lifted for all but a few facilities surrounding the plant, according to dispatchers at the Iberville Office of Emergency Preparedness.

"The fire at Williams Olefins continues to burn but is under control at this time," officials noted on the parish Facebook page.

Stacy Lee Persilver of Sorrento, La., posted a photo on her Facebook page of black smoke streaming out of the plant. She said her son, who works at the plant, had to jump a fence and roll out before fleeing.

"The sound of [his] voice was awful! He was running down [a road] when he called me! I'm so shook up, pray everyone else gets out safe," Persilver wrote, adding that her son was safe and sheltering at a nearby elementary school gym where she planned to pick him up. 

The company's website says the plant produces 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene annually.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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