Gas Leak At A Plastics Factory Takes the Lives of 23 People – 10/23/1989

US History |


On October 23, 1989, an ethylene leak at a factory in Pasadena, Texas ended in a series of explosions which caused the death of 23 people. It was determined later that a Phillips Petroleum Company plant failed to exercise safety procedures which resulted to the tragedy.

The Phillips 66 Chemical Complex in Pasadena housed a polyethylene reactor which played a key role in the manufacture of certain chemical compounds that were essential for plastics production. This plant had the capacity to produce millions of pounds of plastics that were mostly used for making toys and containers.

Phillips subcontracted most of the maintenance work in the plant in an attempt to cut on costs. However, their primary subcontractor, Fish Engineering and Construction, did not boast a great reputation even before the disaster of October 23rd. In August of the same year, an employee from Fish was reported to have opened a gas piping without isolating the line which was not considered the standard procedure. His negligence caused accident in the area – the flammable solvent and gas which were supposed to be sent to a work area lit up. This incident killed one worker and left four others injured.

On October 23rd, Fish was once again conducting maintenance work without observing safety procedures. They were working on the plant’s polyethylene reactor when they failed to secure a valve properly. At approximately 1:00PM, about 85,000 pounds of ethylene-isobutane gas were released in the plant. The highly flammable gas ignited and created a blast which was equivalent to that of blowing up two-and-a-half tons of dynamite.

It was a massive explosion that rocked the location from every direction. The fireball from the blast site was reported to have been visible for as far as 15 miles away. Philips lost 23 workers in the accident while 130 others had serious injuries when the first explosion started a chain reaction, resulting to a series of blasts.

An investigation was conducted after the incident. Reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) showed how Phillips incurred several safety violations in the previous years. However, the OSCA may have also been in partly responsible for the incident; they failed to conduct inspections of the plant since 1975. Testimonies arose saying that that the plant was made susceptible to disaster since adequate safety procedures were not implemented to begin with. Philips and its managers were not held responsible for the accident – no criminal charges were filed against them. 

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