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Watson Grinding explosion | Residents still waiting for help rebuilding their homes a year later

“My mom is 70-years old and if something drops on the floor, she just gets panicked," said Maria Uriostegui of the PTSD associated with the explosion that killed 2.

HOUSTON — Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 marks exactly one year since the deadly explosion at Watson Grinding at 4525 Gessner Road in Houston. The early morning blast literally shook parts of Houston and knocked hundreds of families out of bed. 

A year later and boarded up windows, tattered tarp and the sounds of construction fill the neighborhood just west of the facility that housed hazardous chemicals.

“We’re never going to forget this. Never. Never,” said Maria Uriostegui from the front porch of her son’s home in the Westbranch neighborhood. “My mom is 70 years old and if something drops on the floor, she just gets panicked.”

In spite of the trauma and the setbacks, Uriostegui is hopeful about her family’s recovery. 

“Actually, my house is that one. That’s my house,” said Uriostegui as she pointed to the neighboring home currently under construction. “It took me a year to get the permit from the city. I just started building on January 1, 2021."

She hopes to move her elderly mother into the brand new home later this year. Uriostegui said she’s lived near Watson Grinding for nearly 20 years. Like many of her neighbors, she said she had no idea hazardous chemicals were stored on the property.

Just after 4 a.m.  on Jan. 24, 2020 an explosion at the facility killed two Watson Grinding employees, injured others and damaged hundreds of properties. The force of the blast literally shifted some homes off of their foundations.

“So, it’s been a year. A lot of my clients are homeless,” said attorney Eric Dick who says he has clients whose homes, which are more than a mile from Watson Grinding, were damaged by the explosion.  

Dick was one of the first lawyers to file a lawsuit against Watson Grinding.

“Between $20 million and $30 million is what we estimate for the physical and personal property damage,” said Dick. “No compensation. None.”

Watson Grinding filed for bankruptcy in the weeks after the explosion. Lawsuits are tied up in the courts. 

The ATF wrapped its investigation and turned its report over to the Houston Fire Department late last year.  

Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena says the explosion and fire are classified as “undetermined” just in case more evidence comes to light. Early into the investigation the ATF did rule out arson.

Pena says the theory is the fire started because a rusted area of pipe leaked propylene, which was ignited by an electrical spark, something as simple as a light switch being flipped on.

"We just passed changes to the hazardous enterprise ordinance,” said Amy Peck, the City of Houston councilwoman who represents the Spring Branch area. “Before the changes, if you were storing materials outside you didn’t have to follow the ordinance. And so this kind of closes that loophole to make sure people have to follow it, even if it’s being stored outside.”

After a series of fires at chemical facilities in Harris County in 2019, the Harris County Fire Marshals also began inspecting properties that house hazardous chemicals in 2020. 

Inspections were limited because of the pandemic and restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the Harris County Fire Marshals Office was able to walk 50 properties last year. Their reports will better help firefighters respond to chemical incidents by understanding what chemicals are stored on the property and what technique will best extinguish the fire.

One year after the deadly explosion at Watson Grinding, “some people are still living in their homes where there’s damage,” said Peck.

The effects of the explosion and still be seen and felt by a community that seems frozen in time, “when we start talking about what happened, we get a lot of emotion, still,” said Uriostegui.

Watson Grinding.released the following statement Friday afternoon:

“As we reflect on the terrible event that occurred one year ago, we express our sincere condolences to everyone affected. It is alleged that three deaths were attributed to this tragedy, two of whom were Watson employees. The men who were lost that day, along with their families, will always be in our hearts and prayers.

“We also acknowledge the difficulties experienced by our neighbors whose homes and businesses were affected and whose lives were disrupted. We have been inspired by the community’s response.

“Over the past year we have worked diligently with state and federal agencies to investigate the incident and to gain a clear understanding of what happened that caused this event. Thank you for your patience as this investigation works toward a conclusion, and we thank the teams of officials, experts and investigators for their professionalism and perseverance in this endeavor. It is in everyone’s best interest to understand what went wrong in order to make sure nothing like this happens in the future.”