TEXAS CITY - Texas City firefighters and other first responders did not need a call to know their help was going to be needed the day there was an explosion at the BP Texas City Refinery.
“The explosion was so massive it was not something you could miss,” said David Briggs, who was an engineer with the Texas City Fire Department on March 23, 2005.
The explosion was from an isomerization unit at the refinery and it would end up killing 15 people and injuring more than 170, according to a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report.
Briggs, who is now retired from the department, said he knew the moment he heard the explosion that he needed to get to the fire station.
The explosion occurred about 1:30 p.m. and Jesse Rubio, who was an engineer with the fire department at the time, said he remembers he had just finished his lunch and had laid down to rest when the explosion happened.
“The ceiling tiles got sucked up and came back down, then you heard the explosion,” said Rubio, now an assistant chief with the fire department.
Briggs, Rubio and Steve Cooley, then an engineer with the department and now a battalion chief, were among the many first responders who helped rescue and treat the wounded.
In an incident detailed in 2005, Chief David Zacherl, then a captain in the department, and others wrote of hazardous conditions the firefighters stepped into when they responded to the refinery. The report states that firefighters operated in a “hostile environment” and had to depend on their training and each other to conduct a “rescue operation of enormous proportions.”
But before they got to the refinery they didn’t know what to expect, Briggs said. He said he remembers loading up every bit of emergency equipment — oxygen bottles, burn kits and more — before heading to the site.
Rubio said that once he got to the refinery there wasn’t much fire but the area around the damaged unit was a mess.
“The units that were around it looked fine and then once you turned to where the (isomerization unit) was it was just total devastation,” Rubio said. “Mangled metal everywhere.”
As soon as they got there, they started seeing and treating people with injuries and an informal triage center was set up.
In September 2005, firefighters said that in their first few moments on the scene, they “successfully conducted two rescues of critically injured and trapped victims who other wise would have died. This was done with extreme risk to themselves due to the unit still burning with product not yet being secured.”
It was a chaotic scene made worse by the fact that at the time, only less than four years removed from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorities were not sure if the explosion was an accident or a terror attack, Rubio said.
The explosion was the largest mass casualty and rescue event the fire department and the city had faced since the Texas City Disaster in 1947. And while the first responders were able to help many at the refinery in 2005, it is not something they often bring up.
“It’s just one of those things you don’t talk about,” Briggs said.
The department has expanded since then and gone through training to be prepared for if, or when, another massive event occurs.
Cooley said it is likely that another large-scale accident will happen.
“You wonder about it,” Cooley said. “It’s inevitable.”