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)