The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 11/18/14

Guests: Mark Collette, investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle Bernard Parks, former Los Angeles Police Chief

Last year… in the city of West, Texas there was a terrible explosion.

(PLANT ON FIRE, EXPLODES) God almightly damn God almightly damn God damn. Oh my lord get in the truck. get in the truck Oh my lord.

The aftermath of that massive ammonium nitrate explosion at that fertilizer plant in West, Texas left a 90-foot wide crater in that town. Fifteen people were killed, more than 200 people were injured. Hundreds of buildings destroyed or damaged.

That was last year, in April.

Then this past May, this plant -- this wooden building -- near Athens Texas got a delivery 70-tons of ammonium nitrate, which is the same thing that blew up in West, Texas, but 70 tons is significatly more than what blew up in West, Texas.

That wooden building had 70 tons of highly-explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer delivered one fine Thursday afternoon in May. And then just hours after those 70 tons arrived, a fire broke out at that plant and with the 70 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in that wooden building with no sprinklers, no fire-wall, and no alarm system, the local fire department realized what they had on their hands and they evacuated the whole town, fearing the worst. And amazingly, the thing did not blow up.

After those incidents there was growing public concern about what kind of chemicals were being stored where and what kind of danger they posed. And whether Texas really knew what it was doing with stuff like this.

After those accidents, Texas state government actually moved to keep secret more information from the public about what kind of chemicals are where in the state of Texas.

People were obviously starting to get interested in that for obvious and terrifying reasons so Texas decided to make it secret.

ABBOTT: You know where, you know where they are if you drive around, let's bear this down. Living in West, Texas, you know that there is some facility there and you have the right to ask the people in West, Texas, Hey! What chemicals do you have in there?

Just drive around! That was Texas attorney general Greg Abbott -- who has just been elected governor of texas -- explaining that Texas no longer believes it should post public information about chemical facilities in the state because people can just drive around! Just drive around and figure out yourself what's out there. Regulate yourself from any dangerously stored chemicals in your neighborhood that could explode. Texas! Texas.

The largest city in the great state of Texas, fourth most populous city in the whole country - about 25 miles east of Houston you will find the city of La Porte. It sits along the bay. And in La Porte, one of the businesses you will find there is this DuPont chemical plant. And at around 4 in the morning this past Saturday there was a terrible disaster at that plant.

GILBERT TISNADO: My son called me, he said, Dad, there's been an accident at the plant and Gibby and Bobbie are involved. REPORTER: A horrifying phone call. Two of his sons killed during a chemical leak at the DuPont facility in La Porte.

GILBERT TISNADO: My heart stopped beating. REPORTER: Gilbert Tisnado and his family would soon learn that the leak killed four people and injured a fifth.

Two of his three sons were killed. Four people killed altogether, a fifth seriously injured. What killed them was a leak of a chemical that's used mostly in pesticide but also in jet fuel and plastics. It's called methyl mercaptan.

DuPont manufactures that chemical at that plant. But when the leak happened and four people died in quick succession, when the plant supervisor called 911 for help, he sounded like he really had no idea what chemical might be involved, or what first-responders might be facing when they responded to this call he was making. This is amazing tape, from the 911 call, obtained by the NBC affiliate KPRC. The 911 operator is doing such an amazing job here -- but the plant supervisor just has no idea:

[STARTS WITH NUMBER DIALING] PHONE CALL: 911 What is the emergency-- JOEL EISENBAUM: Local 2  investigates has reviewed a three minute 911 call that raises interesting questions. It is clear in the moments immediately following the toxic gas release at the La Porte DuPont plant Saturday morning. DUPONT SUPERVISOR (911 CALL):  -- We have a possible causality 5 that's… what the medics are telling me. Reporter: A plant shift supervisor was not completely clear about the nature of the emergency on his hands. 911 DISPATCHER: How did this happen? Is it chemical related? DUPONT SUPERVISOR: Uh.. I'm not certain…sorry. 911 DISPATCHER: I need to know what's going on before I send- DUPONT SUPERVISOR: They're doing a rescue right now of injured people. I'm not sure if there are chemicals involved or not. I'm just relaying the message. JOEL EISENBAUM: Curiously though, while lacking a full understanding of the situation at hand, including the type of poison gas that escaped- 911 DISPATCHER: You don't know what kind of chemical it is? DUPONT SUPERVISOR: No, Ma'am. As soon as I find out I will let you know. I've got- my team is trying to determine that right now. JOEL EISENBAUM: DuPont shift supervisor was still  confident enough to declare the public was not at risk. 911 DISPATCHER: Can you tell me, is this any risk to the public? Is it going to be a possible escaping from your furnaces? DUPONT SUPERVISOR: No ma'am it is not. 911 DISPATCHER: No threats? DUPONT SUPERVISOR: No Ma'am.

No threats... no ma'am. But I have no idea what this is. Why don't you come on over.

When firefighters did show up they did not have the equipment they would need to be able to get in there.

The city's emergency coordinator now telling the Houston Chronicle that firefighters "were unable to access the area of the acciedent and recover the bodies until hours after the deaths."

"Firefighters initially couldn't get far enough into the building on the air packs they carry, Suggs said. Even if they could have done so, the clothing and breathing equipment available to the typical firefighter isn't enough to protect from inhalation or skin contact from such high levels of that chemical..."

Even though the 911 call came in at 4 a.m. and that gas killed four people they couldn't even shut the leak off for two more hours. The medical examiner couldn't even get near the bodies until the afternoon. What was the plan for dealing with this stuff at this plant? Why didn't the plant even know what they were dealing with when they called in the local first responders? How were the first responders supposed to handle the leak of something that can kill you in one breath that even your airpacks can't keep you safe from without the plant cluing them in on what they had and how to deal with it?

In 2009 that same plant was fined for a seven hour long leak of toxic methylene chloride into the air. They were fined for the seven hour leak and for waiting five days to report it.

In 2007, the feds fined them for serious safety violations and improperly managing highly-hazardous chemicals.

In 2012 and 2014, the plant was given a six figure fine for the way it was managing its hazardous waste and its air emissions.

Over the past five years that same plant has been cited fifty one times by Texas regulators alone for unauthorized leaks and bad record keeping. Fifty one citations. From Texas.

And it's not like Texas is known for being real sticklers on this stuff.

The Federal Chemical Safety board is investigating the leak - an 8 member team arrived in La Porte yesterday and began interviewing employees at the plant but we believe they still have not been able to enter the location where the leak happened on Saturday because it is still too unsafe to get in there.

What just happened in La Porte, Texas that killed these four people on Saturday? And what happens next here?

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