Crane Collapses At Houston Refinery — Killing 4, Injuring 7

July 21, 2008

As federal investigators converged on a Houston oil refinery July 19 where a crane collapse killed four and injured seven others, the company that owns the 30-story-tall crane released the names of the dead workers.

The four men killed in the accident on July 18 were identified as Marion “Scooter” Hubert Odom III, 41, of Highlands; John D. Henry, 33, of Dayton; Daniel “DJ” Lee Johnson, 30, of Dayton; and Rocky Dale Strength, 30, of Santa Fe, Texas, according to Baton Rouge, La.-based Deep South Crane & Rigging.

“We’re a smaller company. We treat our employees like family,” said Margaret Landry, a spokeswoman for Deep South. “Our focus right now really and truly is with the families of the people we lost, the people who were injured and the investigation.”

Investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began their formal accident investigation at 9 a.m., said David Roznowski, a spokesman for LyondellBasell refinery, where the accident occurred. OSHA investigators are working with the refinery, subcontractor Deep South and the project manager.

The OSHA team has up to six months to report its findings, the Houston Chronicle reported.

“It really is too early to say what happened,” Roznowski told the Associated Press. “With the formal incident investigation, that’s where we will start to get answers, but it’s going to take time. We want to make sure no stone is left unturned and that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

Two of the injured workers remained in Houston hospitals July 19. Their injuries were not life-threatening, said Roznowski. Two other injured workers were taken to a hospital and have since been released; and three others were treated and released at the scene, fire officials said.

The first lawsuit stemming from the collapse — the latest in a string of fatal accidents involving cranes — was filed in Harris County state district court, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Grant Pasek, a worker injured after jumping from an elevated bucket when he saw the crane start to fall. It seeks a temporary restraining order to preserve the scene and evidence relating to the accident, attorney Jim S. Hart told the newspaper.

Pasek, a lineman, was working in a bucket about 45 feet in the air when he saw the crane start to fall, his attorney said.

The massive 300-foot-tall crane, capable of lifting one million pounds, fell over at the southeast Houston refinery at about 1:20 p.m., said Jim Roecker, the company’s vice president for refining. It hit the ground with enough force to lift workers off the ground, and toppled across another smaller crane and a tent where workers were eating lunch.

Micheal Gabriel, 22, of Spring, told reporters as he left a hospital that he was lifted off the ground by the crane’s impact.

Gabriel, a contract worker, said he didn’t see the crane fall. “I was in shock. I was crying. It was bad.”

He told a relative that he was in the canopy tent when he heard a loud pop and people started shouting for others to run, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Crane safety has been getting extra scrutiny in recent months because of an alarming number of crane-related deaths in places such as New York, Miami and Las Vegas.

In New York City, two crane accidents since March have killed nine people — a greater number than the total deaths from cranes over the previous decade.

An Associated Press analysis in June found that cities and states have wildly varying rules governing construction cranes, and some have no regulations at all, choosing instead to rely on federal guidelines dating back nearly 40 years that some experts say haven’t kept up with technological advances.

Texas led the nation with 26 crane-related fatalities in 2005 and 2006, according to federal statistics. Cranes in Texas operate without any state or local oversight, leaving that job to federal regulators.

Cameras are mounted around the plant and Roecker said the company hopes that video from those cameras will help it figure out what happened.

East Texas Crane Academy president Joe Bob Williams, whose clients include Lyondell, said it’s unusual for such cranes to fail because of the number of people involved in their maintenance.

“It’s really odd for these cranes to have any issues because there are so many eyes looking in,” Williams said.

The crane failed and collapsed during maintenance, LyondellBasell officials said. It had not been scheduled to do any work until next week, but Roecker said its engine was idling after it hit the ground.

The crane had been delivered in pieces and assembled on site within the last month. It is one of the nation’s largest mobile cranes and was brought in to remove the roof of the coker unit so large drums could be removed from inside, Roecker said. Cokers convert crude oil to petroleum products.

The maintenance project has been suspended for a week, but refinery operations at the plant were operating normally, said Roznowski.

The refinery, which has about 3000 employees and 1600 contractors, also brought in grief counselors and will hold a series of safety meetings to address concerns about the accident starting July 21, he said.

Associated Press writers Ana Ley and John Porretto and photographer David Phillip in Houston, Anabelle Garay and Paul J. Weber in Dallas and researcher Judith Auesebel in New York contributed to this report.

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