Lebanese demand change after government quits over Beirut blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come close to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes.

The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres across on dock nine, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.

A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 171 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

“It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still (President Michel) Aoun, (Parliament Speaker Nabih) Berri and the entire system.”

For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.

SECTARIAN SYSTEM

The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery.

“It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.

Diab formed his government in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as premier amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The presidency has yet to say when official consultations will take place.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.

A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.

“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jarasevic said eight emergency international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay.

Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds metres from the port.

“As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Gas explosion destroys Baltimore homes, one dead and children trapped

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A gas explosion ripped through a Baltimore neighborhood on Monday, killing at least one person, injuring four and trapping children as the blast destroyed at least three homes, firefighters said.

Fire officials described it as a natural gas explosion but said the exact cause was under investigation.

The blast destroyed three brick row homes and ripped open the wall of another, spreading debris throughout the neighborhood. Rescuers picked through the rubble, searching for victims with their hands and hand tools, Baltimore City Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams told reporters at the scene.

One woman was killed, four people were hospitalized in serious condition, and firefighters were trying to rescue a sixth person, fire officials said.

At one point at least five people were trapped, some of them children, the Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 said on Twitter.

Neighbors responding to the blast dug through rubble and called out for victims.

One neighbor told the Baltimore Sun he could hear shouts from trapped children.

“Come get us! We’re stuck!” came the cries, Kevin Matthews told the Sun.

Matthews found one person buried from the neck down and another sheltering in a closet, the Sun said.

“You knew it was something catastrophic,” Dean Jones told WBFF television about hearing the blast. “I didn’t think. I didn’t grab shoes. I took off running. I followed the smoke. I started yelling to come help.”

Jones and several other neighbors freed at least one woman from the scene.

“Once they said a kid was in there, I lost it. I said I had to get in there now,” Jones told WBAL television.

But he also wanted no special accolades, saying, “I am not a hero, I’m a human.”

Neighbors said their windows were blown out and doors blasted off the hinges, the Sun reported.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Beirut blast a wake-up call on dangers of ammonium nitrate, experts warn

By Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Houreld

(Reuters) – The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say.

Lebanese authorities said 2,750 tonnes of the industrial chemical had been stored for six years at Beirut port without safety measures. That stockpile exploded on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring thousands and leaving about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Commonly used in fertilizers and as an industrial explosive, ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if handled properly, but it has proved lethal.

In one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents, 567 people were killed in Texas in 1947 when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship.

“Beirut, like Texas, is a wake-up call. We should learn from these catastrophes and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Stewart Walker, of the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Some countries have banned ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer because it has been used by militant bomb-makers and since Tuesday’s blast, some governments have been urged to relocate stockpiles.

Chris Owen, a U.N. explosives adviser, said few countries make ammonium nitrate but many use it, often importing it by sea. Since many ports have had cities develop around them, large quantities are moving through cities on a regular basis. “If it’s managed properly, it’s no risk,” Owen said.

In terms of safety, experts say, quantity, ventilation and proximity to flammables are critical, as is distance from population centers.

Anger has been mounting in Lebanon at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of the chemical to be stored near a residential area for years in unsafe conditions.

The United Nations has issued guidelines on safe storage and transportation but regulations vary from country to country, experts said.

Global variation on regulation is a concern, said Julia Meehan, the managing editor of ICIS Fertilizers, a trade publication. “There’s no global body that looks across it, it’s country to country or regional,” said Meehan. “It can even differ from port to port.”

One expert, who asked not to be identified, said political instability was a major factor in enforcement. He cited Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and South American countries. “If the country is at war, or struggling with an insurgency or other problems, they have other issues to deal with,” he said.

Global data on storage is spotty, said Hans Reuvers, a German-based expert on ammonium nitrate and fertilizer technology and executive committee member at the Ammonium Nitrate/Nitric Acid Producers Study Group (ANNA).

Germany only allows 25 tonnes of pure ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, Reuvers said. France toughened its regulations after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse killed 31 people.

“You have to store it in non-flammable bins, keep them far away from flammable materials. There are similar regulations across Europe as well as in East Asia,” Reuvers said.

GLOBAL TRADE

Worldwide trade in ammonium nitrate in 2018 was worth $2.14 billion, with Russia the leading exporter, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, and Brazil the largest importer.

The United States and Europe are the leading consumers of ammonium nitrates, according to London-based IHS Markit, accounting for just over half of global consumption in 2019.

Countries with large stockpiles tend to have large mining or industrial agriculture industries, said Roger Read, of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.

“Those would tend to be most large, industrialized countries – Britain, the U.S., Russia, China – as well as India and other smaller countries in Europe,” Read said.

The United States in 2019 eased chemical-safety regulations implemented after a deadly ammonium nitrate blast in 2013. The move cut costly regulations but still kept safety measures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the EPA should add ammonium nitrate to a list of regulated chemicals needing increased oversight, calling present U.S. regulations “thoroughly inadequate.”

The United States does not maintain a public database on the locations of ammonium nitrate, meaning people do not know if they live near one, said Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how much of this material exists and where,” Craft said. “You don’t know the magnitude of that risk because of the lack of information that’s available.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Tangi Salaun, Jonathan Saul, Gus Trompiz, Polina Devitt, Guy Faulconbridge, Josephine Mason, Stephen Farrell, Tom Polansek and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)

Beirut reels from huge blast as death toll climbs to at least 135

By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese rescue teams pulled out bodies and hunted for missing in the wreckage of buildings on Wednesday as investigations blamed negligence for a massive warehouse explosion that sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 135.

More than 5,000 other people were injured in Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut port, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, and up to 250,000 were left without homes fit to live in after shockwaves smashed building facades, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows miles inland.

Hassan said tens of people remained missing. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday.

The death toll was expected to rise from the blast, which officials blamed on a huge stockpile of highly explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions at the port.

The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war that ended three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections. The blast rattled buildings on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, after it was seized.

In an address to the nation during an emergency cabinet session, Aoun said: “No words can describe the horror that has hit Beirut last night, turning it into a disaster-stricken city”.

He said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable.”

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” by committees and judges involved in the matter to order the removal of hazardous material.

The cabinet ordered port officials involved in storing or guarding the material since 2014 to be put under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters. The cabinet also announced a two-week state of emergency in Beirut.

‘COLLAPSE OF LEBANON’

Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon’s financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.

The health minister said the death toll had climbed to 135, as the search for victims continued after shockwaves from the blast hurled some of the victims into the sea.

Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on those still missing. Many of those killed were port and custom employees, people working in the area or those driving nearby during the Tuesday evening rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues as hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials said hospitals were struggling with the big influx of casualties and were running out of beds and equipment to attend to the injured and those in critical condition.

Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center was “like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts,” said Sara, one of its nurses.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV that collective losses after the blast might reach $10 billion to $15 billion, saying the estimate included both direct and indirect losses related to business.

“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone,” said Bilal, a man in his 60’s, in the downtown area.

Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies.

Turkey said it would send 20 doctors to Beirut to help treat the injured, as well as medical and relief assistance, Iraq pledged fuel aid while Iran offered food and a field hospital.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a tweet: “We sympathize with the dear Lebanese citizens and stand by them in the painful tragedy of the Beirut port explosion…Patience in the face of this incident will be a golden leaf of honor for Lebanon.”

The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political and economic change in Lebanon, also offered aid. Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus offered specialized search and rescue teams.

Two French planes were expected to arrive on Thursday with 55 rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic. French President Emmanuel Macron will also visit Lebanon on Thursday. Other Arab and European countries are sending doctors, mobile hospitals and equipment.

‘CATASTROPHE’

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had since been rebuilt.

“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage.

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.

Taxi driver Abou Khaled said ministers “are the first that should be held accountable for this disaster. They committed a crime against the people of this nation with their negligence.”

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.

Beirut Governor Abboud said amounts of available wheat were currently limited and he reckoned a crisis might develop without international intervention.

Lebanon had already been struggling to house and feed refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Syria and has no trade or other ties with its only other neighbor Israel.

“On a scale, this explosion is scaled down from a nuclear bomb rather than up from a conventional bomb,” said Roland Alford, managing director of British explosive ordnance disposal firm Alford Technologies. “This is huge.”

The blast prompted the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Wednesday to postpone its verdict in the trial over the 2005 bombing that killed ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri to Aug. 18. The tribunal’s decision had been expected this Friday.

The U.N.-backed court put on trial four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah. Hariri and 21 others were killed by a big truck bomb in another area of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Ghaida Ghantous, Alaa Swilam and Omar Fahmy; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich)

Massive blast sends seismic shock across Beirut, causing thousands of casualties

By Samia Nakhoul and Yara Abi Nader

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the center of Beirut killed more than 25 people, injured over 2,500 others and sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere – in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion.”

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 25 people had been killed and more than 2,500 were injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

DAY OF MOURNING

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the country’s Supreme Defense Council, according to the presidency’s Twitter account. Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday’s blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had “disappeared” after the explosion.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast bangs. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

“All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos,” a Reuters witness said.

(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Dubai and Beirut bureau; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Ghaida Ghantous and Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones and Edmund Blair)

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)