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Official: TX Chemical Plant Fire Likely Sparked By Welding

Fri, 07/31/2009 - 4:30am

BRYAN, Texas (AP) — A welding job likely sparked a fire at a central Texas chemical plant that forced thousands of people from their homes and closed Texas A&M University's main campus, an emergency management official said Friday.

The investigation continues at the El Dorado Chemical Co., but "the best information we have is that the fire was started by some welding," said John Salsman with Brazos County emergency management.

Red Cross volunteers assist Kimberly Worthy and her son Christian Johnson, 4, of Bryan, Texas with entry paperwork for entry into a temporary shelter for displaced Bryan residents gather at Reed Arena on the Texas A&M Campus in College Station, Texas after a voluntary evacuation of the city of Bryan, Texas Thursday July 30, 2009. Thousands of residents were evacuated and the Texas A&M University campus closed Thursday as a fire burned at a chemical plant that processes explosive ammonium nitrate. (AP Photo/Gabriel Chmielewski)

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate and at least 34 needed medical attention, mostly for smoke inhalation or eye irritation, after the blaze started at midday Thursday. The fire was still smoldering early Friday and fewer than 1,000 people remained away from their homes, Salsman said.

The plant blends and packages fertilizer and other chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, a chemical used to make explosives. Salsman said extensive air monitoring throughout the night did not detect harmful levels of toxins in the air around Bryan, a city of 80,000 or so located about 100 miles north of Houston.

"Things are looking better," he said, adding that officials hoped to allow residents to return home soon.

The nearby Texas A&M campus, which was closed as a precaution, was reopened Friday. A&M's Reed Arena served as a shelter for about 1,200 people, but the shelter was closed late Thursday and most people returned home, Salsman said.

El Dorado Chemical's Web site describes the facility as a place where customers can stock up on ammonium nitrate fertilizer "by the truckloads" 24 hours a day. The company said in a statement that it would conduct an internal review and cooperate with authorities' investigations.

"We deeply regret the enormous inconvenience this incident has caused residents and businesses in Bryan and College Station as well as other nearby communities," the statement said.

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