Two deaths confirmed as machine shop blast rips Houston neighborhood

By Collin Eaton

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A massive explosion at a machine shop ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, and police said at least two people were killed and several injured while homes were damaged by the explosion that sent out blast waves detected for miles.

“First and foremost, I want to say that we do have confirmed fatalities in this case, at least two confirmed fatalities,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a press briefing.

Acevedo said police and fire officials will conduct an arson investigation that could take several weeks, but stressed there is no current evidence of foul play. “Having said that, when you have this kind of a type of incident, part of our protocol is to always conduct a criminal investigation,” he added.

Aerial video showed the shredded and collapsed wreckage of the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing building smoldering but no longer flaming, along with widespread damage to area homes and businesses from the force of the blast.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on video by a home security camera and aired on KTRK. It showed a blinding flash in the distance followed by a fireball.

“I thought it was thunder,” said Bruce Meikle, 78, an owner of nearby manufacturer ChemSystems, who heard the explosion from his home about a mile (1.5 km) from the scene. He told Reuters the force of the blast bent back the metal loading doors at his business and caused minor damage inside, he said.

Paul Crea, 59, a chemist who works for Meikle, said the blast woke him 10 miles (16 km) away in Katy, a Houston suburb, and his dogs bellowed at the sound.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

The explosion “knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim told KPRC, an NBC affiliate. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

The blast originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, which provides coatings, machining and grinding about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of central Houston.

The company’s owner told ABC affiliate KTRK a propylene gas explosion sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, reporter Marla Carter said on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton, Peter Szekely and Bhargav Acharya; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson, Frances Kerry, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Huge explosion rips through Houston neighborhood, causing several injuries

(Reuters) – A massive explosion at a manufacturing building ripped through a Houston neighborhood early Friday morning, injuring several people and damaging homes while sending out blast waves detected for miles around, officials and media said.

Smoke poured out from inside the structure in the predawn darkness about two hours after the blast as emergency vehicle lights flashed and first responders blocked access and checked for damage, aerial video from KTRK television showed.

No fatalities were reported, but one employee was unaccounted for, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The moment of the explosion, around 4:25 a.m. CST (1025 GMT), was captured on a home security camera, also aired on KTRK, that showed a blinding flash in the distance, followed by a fireball.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the blast was felt as far away as 14 miles (22 km), based on social media reports.

“(The explosion) knocked us all out of our bed, it was so strong,” Mark Brady told KPRC television. “It busted out every window in our house. It busted everybody’s garage door in around here. … It’s a war zone over here.”

Another neighbor identified only as Kim said her family was trapped in her home until rescued.

“The whole house is ruined,” Kim said. “The whole ceiling crashed down on all of us. We were all trapped in there, and a nice family came and helped us out. It’s trashed. It’s just trashed. … Every house was devastated.”

KTRK, the local ABC affiliate, said the blast appeared to have originated at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing, a machining and manufacturing company. The explosion took place on Gessner Road in northwestern Houston, city police wrote on Twitter.

“The owner of Watson Grinding tells us it was a propylene gas explosion, which sent two people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries,” KTRK reporter Marla Carter wrote on Twitter.

Propylene is a colorless, flammable, liquefied gas that has several industrial uses.

The debris field from the explosion spread about a half mile (1 km) wide, but there were no known toxic gases emitted from the blast, Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

The explosion damaged several homes in the area, the Houston Chronicle reported, showing pictures of homes with windows blown in and debris scattered.

At least two people had cuts on their faces after their windows were blown in, according to pictures published on the Chronicle website.

“This is still an active scene,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña posted on Twitter. “We will advise of the possible cause of the explosion as soon as we have concrete info.”

A hazardous materials team was responding to the area and at least one person was taken to the hospital, the Houston Fire Department wrote on Twitter.

Mike Iscovitz, a meteorologist with the local Fox News channel, said the huge blast had shown up on local weather radar and was felt more than 20 miles (32 km) away.

“Radar clearly shows this brief FLASH of reflectivity from NW Houston,” he tweeted.

Houston, a major hub for the oil and gas industry, is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of some 2.3 million.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Peter Szekely; Writing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Alex Richardson Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Explosion at Kansas aircraft plant injures 15 people

(Reuters) – At least 15 people were injured on Friday after a liquid nitrogen line exploded at a Textron Aviation plant near Wichita, Kansas, potentially setting back the launch of a new aircraft under development, county and company officials said.

Emergency medical services took 11 people to the hospital, one of them suffering potentially serious injuries, Dr. John Gallagher, director of Sedgwick County EMS, told a news conference.

Company officials said two of victims went to the hospital in private cars and two were treated at the scene.

Injuries were limited because only a skeleton crew was on duty during the holidays, said Deputy Chief Daniel Wegner of the Sedgwick County Fire Department.

The explosion in a 3-inch liquid nitrogen gas line also damaged a storage tank, causing nitrogen gas to vent out of the building, Wegner said.

News video from the scene showed what appeared to be a steam cloud billowing out of the damaged building. The gas was not harmful, Wegner said.

A second valve also ruptured, said Kate Flavin, a spokeswoman for Sedgwick County, and emergency crews vented nitrogen gas from the affected tanks before doing another search of the plant.

No others were found injured and control of the facility was returned to Textron shortly after noon, but emergency crews remained on standby at the scene, she said.

Damage was contained to Plant 3, a site for composite manufacturing and experimental aircraft fabrication including that of the SkyCourier, said Stephanie Harder, a spokeswoman for Textron.

The SkyCourier, a utility turboprop under development, is due to enter service in 2020, Textron has previously said. Harder said it was too early to determine what damage the prototype aircraft under production may have suffered.

Textron Aviation, a unit of Textron Inc <TXT.N>, makes Beechcraft and Cessna aircraft.

The Wichita-area economy has long been supported by aircraft manufacturing. Boeing Co <BA.N> announced in January it would suspend production of its 737 Max jetliner, which has been grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes. That move affected workers at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Boeing’s top supplier, which produces the jet’s fuselages.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Bill Tarrant and Richard Chang)

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire

FILE PHOTO: A process tower flies through air after exploding at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant, after an earlier massive explosion sparked a blaze at the plant in Port Neches, Texas, U.S., November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Erwin Seba/File Photo

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire
HOUSTON (Reuters) – Authorities have issued a second evacuation order in a week for residents of a city in the U.S. state of Texas after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant.

Officials issued the order late on Wednesday in Port Neches after air monitors detected elevated levels of a cancer-causing petrochemical produced at the TPC Group facility that was struck by the blaze and blast.

The fire at the 218-acre (88-hectare) plant, which was put out on Tuesday after burning for six days, had earlier prompted the evacuation of about 60,000 residents from several cities in southeast Texas.

Air monitors on Wednesday posted elevated levels of butadiene, a cancer-causing chemical. The plant makes flammable chemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber and a gasoline additive.

Schools were closed for the rest of the week, officials said. Schools in Port Neches and nearby Groves had reopened on Tuesday.

TPC Group did not immediately respond to requests for information on the butadiene emissions.

The latest evacuation, issued by the City of Port Neches and Jefferson County Judge Branick, replaced a shelter-in-place ordered earlier on Wednesday.

Elevated butadiene levels had been measured in some parts of the city and could cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, irritated eyes and throat, the statement said. They did not pose a serious health risk, or a flammability or explosion risk, it said.

A local temporary shelter for residents was re-established, the statement added.

TPC Group’s Port Neches plant suffered a fire after an explosion on Nov. 27 that injured three workers. Officials have not determined the cause of the explosion and fire, which began in a butadiene processing unit.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Sumita Layek; Editing by Richard Pullin and Timothy Heritage)

Texas chemical fire that forced evacuations burns for third day

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The fire at a petrochemical plant that prompted thousands of people to flee from four Texas communities burned for a third day on Friday with officials huddling as investigations were launched.

The fiery blast at a TPC Group facility on Port Neches, Texas, on Wednesday injured three workers, blew locked doors off their hinges and was felt in communities far from the site. The plant makes chemicals used in production of synthetic rubber, resins and an octane-boosting component of gasoline.

Firefighting crews continued to battle the blaze on Friday, according to TPC, and local mayors, fire officials were called to a meeting with the region’s top executive. Federal and state investigators were searching for the cause of the blaze and a Texas pollution regulator criticized the spate of such fires.

About 60,000 residents in four communities near the site were ordered to leave their homes Wednesday afternoon when a major, secondary blast prompted fears of flames reaching large storage tanks of the petrochemicals.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Probe of California boat fire begins as grim search goes on for bodies

A woman pauses as she looks over a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Omar Younis

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Federal safety investigators on Tuesday promised an exhaustive probe into the fire that killed 34 people on a dive boat as many of the charred bodies remained trapped in the sunken wreckage off the California coast or missing in the ocean.

After recovering the remains of 20 people from the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception or from the waters where the dive ship sank off Santa Cruz Island, officials said they believed none of the 14 victims initially classified as missing had survived the fast-moving flames.

“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

“Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims,” he said.

The five survivors, including the boat’s captain and four crew members, were above deck when the blaze broke out at about 3:15 a.m. Pacific time and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who perished was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception would remain on the ocean floor, more than 60 feet below the surface, until a site survey had been completed.

A few scant details about the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 60, began to emerge as emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the remains of the 20 bodies recovered so far. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY”

A memorial to the victims grew alongside a dock not far from where the ship was usually docked in Santa Barbara as members of the close-knit boating community reeling from the tragedy wove flowers into a wood and wire fence and constructed a makeshift memorial.

“It’s just such a horrific notion to think what the people down in the below decks, the people sleeping down there must have gone through,” said Judy Weisman, 72. “How terrifying.”

An audio recording of a desperate call made to the U.S. Coast Guard as flames engulfed the boat offered a glimpse into that terror as a man could be heard pleading for help.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in the garbled recording of the call.

“That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.

“Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,” said the man, using the abbreviation for “people on board” a vessel. “I can’t breathe! … Twenty-nine POB.”

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently failed to respond.

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad co-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good lord,” Harmeling said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

A seashell inscribed with the name “Kristy” was hung on the wooden fence at the dock.

(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

Deadly Taliban attack in Afghan capital casts shadow on peace deal

Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban attack on a housing complex used by international organizations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, late on Monday killed at least 16 people and angered local residents who demanded the heavily fortified compound be moved.

The blast, which shook buildings several kilometers away, happened just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, was outlining details of a draft accord with the insurgents in a television interview.

Following major Taliban attacks on two northern cities over the weekend, the bombing of the Green Village compound in a mixed business and residential area added to questions around the peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Habib Jan, who was in his house nearby when the blast occurred, said the area has been attacked repeatedly and many residents wanted the compound, used by foreign staff of international groups including aid organizations, moved.

“This isn’t once or twice, it’s the fourth or fifth time, all by the Taliban. A lot of my friends, a lot of my family have been wounded or killed,” he said, as smoke spiraled into the sky from burning tires lit by protesters demanding that the complex be moved.

“Our young people have been killed, our children have been killed, our old men have been killed, our girls have been killed. What can we do?”

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives but armed attackers, who planned to follow up the blast, were killed by security forces.

He said around 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily protected site, located off a major road in an area of houses and shops.

Like other compounds built to house the thousands of foreign contractors and agency staff who work in Kabul, Green Village is a fortified complex of concrete blast walls and steel gates protected by armed guards.

While such compounds have been attacked repeatedly over the years, the main victims are often Afghan civilians living in the surrounding area.

The timing of the attack, as Khalilzad’s interview was still being broadcast, appeared to be deliberate, with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declaring the blast had destroyed rooms and offices and caused countless casualties among “invaders”.

“Enemy claims of civilian losses are false as no civilians were allowed close to the site of the attack,” he said in a tweet.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat who has been leading U.S. negotiations, said almost 5,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out and five bases closed in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

But the deal did not include a formal ceasefire and Monday’s attacks, as well as major assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, underlined doubts about whether it would lead to an end to violence.

On the other side, officials in the southern province of Helmand, one of the Taliban’s main strongholds, said 15 insurgents, including the commander and deputy commander of a special operations unit, were killed by U.S. air strikes.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler)

Trump says U.S. not involved in Iran satellite launch failure

FILE PHOTO: A satellite image shows what U.S. officials say is the failed Iranian rocket launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran August 29, 2019. Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday that the United States was not involved with a failed Iranian rocket launch, and he wished Tehran luck at finding out what went wrong.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump said on Twitter.

The rocket exploded on its launch pad at a space center in northern Iran on Thursday, an Iranian official said. A U.S. official also said Iran suffered a satellite launch failure.

The United States has warned Iran against rocket launches, fearful the technology used to put satellites into orbit could enable Tehran to develop the ballistic missile capability needed to launch nuclear warheads.

Tehran denies the U.S. accusation that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development.

The Trump administration has ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran with a series of economic sanctions to try to force it to renegotiate a pact reached with world powers in 2015 limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has offered to hold talks with Iran but Tehran says first it must get relief from U.S. sanctions.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Russia to nuclear test ban monitor: Test accident not your business

FILE PHOTO: A radionuclide particulate station of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is seen on the roof of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia told an agency that verifies a ban on nuclear tests that a military test accident in the country’s north this month was none of its business and that handing it any radiation data was voluntary, Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday.

The Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) said on Monday that two Russian monitoring sites closest to the mysterious explosion went offline days after the blast, soon followed by two more, fuelling suspicions that Russia tampered with them.

The CTBTO said on Tuesday the radioactive-particle sensors of at least one of the four Russian monitoring stations in question were transmitting again.

Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, has acknowledged that five of its nuclear workers were killed in the Aug. 8 explosion during a rocket engine test near the White Sea in far northern Russia. Two Russian military personnel were also reported to have been killed.

There has been contradictory information about the accident’s consequences. The Defence Ministry initially said background radiation remained normal after the incident, but Russia’s state weather agency said radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk had risen by up to 16 times.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday that the accident was not a matter for the CTBTO, which first reported that the radiation monitoring stations went silent, according to Interfax.

“It’s essential to keep in mind that handing over data from our national stations which are part of the international monitoring system is entirely voluntary for any country,” Interfax cited Ryabkov as saying.

The CTBTO’s mandate only covered the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty or national testing moratoriums, Ryabkov added. The treaty was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1996, but has not yet entered into force due to some countries either not signing or ratifying it.

The Aug. 8 accident “should have no connection” to CTBTO activities, Ryabkov said, adding that the agency’s mandate did not extend to weapons development.

“Exhaustive explanations about what happened and what the consequences were have been given by the relevant structures,” said Ryabkov, and the mysterious accident had posed no risks to the environment or people.

Separately, the Kremlin said there was nothing to worry about and that it was confident that government agencies in charge of the relevant radiation monitoring stations had been doing their job correctly.

President Vladimir Putin said on Monday there was no risk of increased radiation levels, but that all necessary safety measures were being taken.

The Defence Ministry, which oversees the work of the monitoring stations, has not responded to a Reuters request for comment.

(Reporting by Maria Kiseylova in Moscow with additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

Volcano erupts on Italian island of Stromboli, kills one person

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – A volcano on the Italian island of Stromboli erupted on Wednesday, releasing hot trapped magma in a powerful explosion, killing one person and enveloping the popular tourist destination in ash, witnesses and local officials said.

The person, believed to be a tourist, was killed by falling stones during a walk, a rescue service official said. A second person was injured.

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

The unexpected eruption started fires on the western side of the small Mediterranean island, which lies north of Sicily, off the toe of Italy. Fire crews were being called in from nearby locations and a Canadair plane was already in action.

“We saw the explosion from the hotel. There was a loud roar,” said Michela Favorito, who works in a hotel near Fico Grande, on the east side of the island.

“We plugged our ears and after this a cloud of ash swept over us. The whole sky is full of ash, a fairly large cloud,” she told Reuters.

Fiona Carter, a British tourist on the island of Panarea, some 27 km (17 miles) from Stromboli, heard the blast.

“We turned around to see a mushroom cloud coming from Stromboli. Everyone was in shock. Then red hot lava started running down the mountain towards the little village of Ginostra,” she told Reuters.

“The cloud got bigger, white and gray. It enveloped Ginostra and now the cloud has covered Stromboli entirely. Several boats set off for Stromboli,” she added.

Stefano Branca, an expert with the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), said there had been a “paroxysmal eruption” on the island, when high-pressure magma explodes from a shallow, underground reservoir.

“These are events of great intensity and quite rare,” he told Reuters.

Tourists often climb to the 924-metre (3,000-foot) summit of the volcano and peer into its crater, with small puffs of molten rock regularly blasted into the sky. It was not clear if anyone was on the crater at the time of the blast.

According to the geology.com website, Stromboli is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet and has been erupting almost continuously since 1932.

The island was the setting for a 1950 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and, with other islands in the Aeolian archipelago, has become a favorite location in recent decades for holiday homes for the rich and famous.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Frances Kerry and Peter Graff)