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Sunday Gazette, 14 September 2008

Bayer Stonewalling Triggered Explosion Response 'Chaos'

Communication Gaps, Problems Followed Blast

Institute Volunteer Fire Chief Andre Higginbotham headed for Bayer CropScience just minutes after the calls starting pouring in to emergency officials about the Aug. 28 explosion and fire at the company's plant.
Under the local emergency plan, Higginbotham would be the incident commander outside the plant. He would decide if nearby towns should be evacuated or if residents should take shelter in their homes.
At about 10:45 p.m., 20 minutes after the blast, Higginbotham told emergency dispatchers he was talking to plant officials and would report back with more information.
"Let us find out what we've got," Higginbotham said, according to emergency radio recordings. "I'll try to give you something in a second."
Six minutes later, Higginbotham reported back. He told dispatchers, "We do have an explosion and a working fire," but gave no further details.
Metro 911 asked for more. "I can't get any information," Higginbotham said. "Stand by. I'm trying to get some information right now."
The additional information didn't come any time soon.
County emergency officials didn't learn for sure until 90 minutes after the explosion where the blast occurred inside the plant, and what toxic chemicals might have been released.
Bayer's refusal to provide information appears to have triggered a series of other problems that hampered response efforts and delayed for more than an hour a warning that residents should take shelter in their homes.
"It was mass chaos," said Joe Crawford, police chief of St. Albans, a city of more than 11,000 located just across the Kanawha River from the plant
Newly released emergency radio recordings, command center reports and public statements by responders all paint a frightening picture of the 3 1/2 hours following the explosion.
Local firefighters and police didn't know what to do. Some were preparing to copy evacuation plans, fearing a catastrophic leak that threatened thousands of lives. Others were scrambling to figure out which roads to close down and at which intersections.
"That information needs to be relayed to Metro so we know what to do to protect our citizens," said Dunbar Mayor Roger Wolfe. "We're a community and it takes everybody working together."
Authorities resorted to all sorts of back-channel communications. They tried to call plant workers and retirees. They reached out to local industry experts, even asked the media for whatever rumors were out there.
Decisions about where emergency personnel should stage were made based on smells and visible observations, not on chemical monitoring results or computer modeling data available to officials inside the Bayer plant.
County officials ended up with command centers set up at three different locations - four, if you count the Metro 911 Operations Center. It wasn't clear who was in charge.
One worker was killed and another seriously injured in the explosion and fire. Thousands of area residents were advised to take shelter in their homes.
No injuries or illnesses outside the plant have been confirmed, but the incident was the worst Kanawha Valley chemical plant accident in more than a decade. And given the location of toxic methyl isocyanate storage tanks near the blast site, it could have been much worse, according state Department of Environmental Protection officials.
A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into the explosion could take six months. A broader probe by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board could take more than a year.
But local residents remain concerned about why it took Bayer so long to explain what was happening the night of Aug. 28 and why emergency responders did not warn residents sooner to take shelter in their homes.
"There's no excuse for that," said St. Albans Fire Chief Steve Parsons. "It's unacceptable."
This isn't the first time residents have raised such complaints. And the Kanawha Valley has a detailed response plan, written to comply with federal chemical emergency laws. Congress mandated such plans after a Union Carbide leak in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people and a smaller release at Carbide's sister plant in Institute injured 135.

Here's how it's supposed to work:
Inside the facility, the plant's in-house fire chief is the on- site incident commander. Outside the facility, the local fire chief is in charge. The two are supposed to work closely together. They manage the response and make decisions about whether communities should be evacuated or advised to stay in their homes.
At the Metro 911 Operations Center, located along U.S. 119 south of Southridge Center, county emergency officials and dispatchers help to dispatch needed resources to the scene.
Fire departments stand by to help. Police officers help block off roads. Ambulance crews prepare to treat and transport anyone who was injured. Poison Center officials pull details on the chemicals that might have been released.
The incident commander is supposed to appoint one or more public information officers to provide needed details to the media and area residents.
But during the Aug. 28 incident, whatever detailed information the incident commander was getting from Bayer was never passed on. And no one involved bothered to appoint someone to communicate with the media and the public.
At about 11:06 p.m., Higginbotham told dispatchers that there was no need for a shelter-in-place advisory. But he didn't say much more.
Later, Higginbotham - a Bayer CropScience employee - recalled that plant officials told him the explosion "had not compromised" any major chemical tanks. He added that he didn't smell anything dangerous. "I felt like at that time it was safe," Higginbotham said.
Metro 911 dispatchers repeated Higginbotham's orders that no shelter-in-place advisory be issued at 11:09 p.m. and again at 11:15 p.m., reports show.
About three minutes later, St. Albans police officers across the river reported hearing a secondary explosion.
Meanwhile, the phones were still ringing off the hook at the Metro 911 center. Dispatchers handled 2,800 calls in four hours, said center director Carolyn Charnock.
Repeatedly over the course of several hours, dispatchers called the plant to ask for details about what had happened. Each time, they got through only to a guard at the plant gate, who said he was only allowed to say that there was an emergency situation ongoing.
At some point, officials from the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department and the state Fire Marshal's office got into the plant. But plant officials hustled them into a small side room and gave them little information.
"We're having a little problem with communications inside the plant to know exactly what we have," Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis said in an 11:20 p.m. call to Metro.
Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford also had deputies stationed outside the plant gate.
The father of one deputy had retired from the plant, and was able to give officials the cell phone number of a current plant employee. Rutherford began getting information from that employee, but was not able to confirm it with company officials.
"The biggest obstacle for everybody was, 'What the heck is going on?'" Rutherford said. "For the longest time, they wouldn't even confirm that there was an explosion at the plant."
Deputies outside the plant were smelling and watching for a chemical cloud. When they thought they saw something, Rutherford on his own authority moved his officers from the plant gate area back to nearby Shawnee Park.
"I'm not going to put my people in danger," Rutherford said.
But the move essentially created another command center. There was already one inside the plant, and one just outside the Bayer gate.
C.W. Sigmon, retired South Charleston fire chief, said that duplicate command centers have been a problem before during chemical accidents.
"If you have three command posts, you must have three incidents," Sigmon said. "We've got to have one command center. We've got to correct that problem."
A week after the Aug. 28 incident, Bayer officials declined to attend a community meeting sponsored by the local citizen group People Concerned About MIC.
Plant spokesman Tom Dover and safety officer Mike Wey did attend last week's emergency response de-briefing. But they said little.
Pushed for answers, Wey told emergency responders, "We will make improvements. We will do our best to get better information out."
Later in the day, Bayer issued a news release through the Charles Ryan Associates public relations firm. It said that company officials "fully recognize our critical role in the emergency communications process" and are "incorporating improvements to ensure prompt communications with public safety officials in emergency situations." By Ken Ward Jr.

September 11, 2008, Charleston Daily Mail

Emergency officials criticize Bayer for communication breakdown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lack of communication from Bayer CropScience during the Aug. 28 explosion at its Institute plant led to problems in emergency response times, according to some state, county and local officials.
The comments were made during an open critique today at the emergency operations center at the Metro 911 complex in Southridge Centre. Kanawha County Emergency Services Director Dale Petry said the meeting was to discuss how to improve services during future incidents.
"There were some good things done and some bad things done," Petry said. "We're here to fix the bad things."
One worker was killed and another injured in the explosion. Thousands of residents took shelter in their homes to evade possible toxic fumes from a fire in the plant's Larvin pesticide unit.
St. Albans Police Chief Joe Crawford said his officers observed the explosion the minute it happened around 10:30 p.m.
The officers notified Metro 911 right away and began traffic control around the Dick Henderson Bridge crossing into Nitro.
He said crews could see plumes of smoke coming from the plant, but Bayer officials had not told them about what was going on.
"We never received any information," Crawford said.
He said that a county-ordered shelter-in-place order wasn't given to residents until nearly an hour after the explosion.
Dunbar Mayor Roger Wolfe said he also found it hard to get any information from the plant.
A former railroad engineer for Union Carbide, Wolfe said he was well aware about how many potentially dangerous chemicals were in the plant.
He said he was prepared to evacuate the city, if needed, but hundreds of cars were backed up on the interstate after the highway was shut down.
Wolfe said the plant should have worked better with the public.
"We're a community and it takes everybody working together," Wolfe said. "We need to communicate a lot better."
Sheriff Mike Rutherford said his biggest frustration was finding out "what the heck is going on"
"For some time, they wouldn't even confirm that there was an explosion at the plant," Rutherford said.
Sgt. Keith Vititoe of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department said he arrived at 11:40 p.m., and was denied access to the plant.
After a brief delay, he was shuffled off into a small room in the plant to get answers from officials.
Vititoe said he had to "pry" answers from the officials.
"Even being that close to the problem, there was a lack of communication," Vititoe said.
Bayer spokesman Tom Dover said the plant's emergency response priorities are to protect the employees and public health, protect the environment and finally protect the assets of the facility.
He said the order from the plant was to issue a standby to Metro 911, which meant a communication that outside assistance was needed but that there was no need for a shelter-in-place.
But the information never made it to Metro 911 officials, he said.
Dover said he the plant would learn from the situation.
"We came here to listen and learn and provide information flow and communication with folks," Dover said.
Though there were some problems, all officials praised the work of Metro 911 under the circumstances.
"They did an exceptional job," said St. Albans Fire Chief Steve Parsons. "They were cool, calm and collected."
Metro 911 Director Carolyn Karr Charnock said the center took in 2,800 calls in four hours. She said the center is looking to expand its capacity for the future. by Matthew Thompson

Metro News, 09/11/2008

Kanawha County Emergency Responders Want More Answers

There were a lot of questions from first responders but very few answers from representatives of Bayer CropSciences during a Thursday debriefing following the August 28 explosion at the company’s plant in Institute.
The explosion and fire killed one plant worker while another suffered burn injuries and is still being treated in a Pittsburgh burn center.
From police to dispatchers, EMTs to the DOT, there was one question everyone in the room wanted to know. Why did it take Bayer two hours after the blast to call for a shelter-in-place? "The problem was you had an explosion at the plant and whether it's dangerous or not, our feelings are the public needed to be notified right away,” said John Smoot of the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority.
Bayer's response came from spokesman Tom Dover. "Our incident commander was operating that night with the understanding that a stand-by had been issued to Metro 911. We've heard over and over again in this room today that that had not been communicated to Metro 911 or it was not understood by Metro 911,” Dover said.
A standby is simply to put Metro 911 on notice the company might call for a shelter-in-place.
St. Albans Police Chief Joe Crawford says they couldn't get any information from Bayer about what blew up, what chemical was floating in the air and if it was even dangerous. He made no bones about it telling Dover by stalling access to information; they could have potentially put thousands of lives in jeopardy. "We can kick this thing around all day long, but the bottom line is, I'm not being disrespectful, I'm trying to make decisions to place my people and we can't get any information,” Crawford said. “That's frustrating. There's got to be changes made. There has to be changes made to get the information out."
Dover's response was general. "I came here today to compare notes with the folks in the room concerning the incident on August 28th and to learn how we can further improve our information flow and our working relationships with Metro 911 and with the Office of Emergency Services,” he said.
That wasn't a good enough answer for many of the emergency responders in the room. One person asked, "Are we going to have the same situation next month, next year, the future or is Bayer going to step up to the plate and start following the plan we've been discussing today?"
Dover refused to answer any specific questions about the incident. He walked away from reporters when they tried to delve deeper into the delay.
Jimmy Gianato, the state Director of Homeland Security for West Virginia says the Governor is getting involved in the matter. He plans to reach out to the chemical company in the next week and ask them to voluntarily contact emergency services within 15 minutes of any sort of incident at the plant. Then he plans to codify that with the state legislature when they go back into session in February. That matches up with legislation passed after the Sago and Alma mine disasters. The coal companies have to alert the state of any problems within 15 minutes or face heavy fines.
Kanawha County Emergency Services wants an even quicker response. Dale Petry, director of the KCES, says if they don’t get an answer from Bayer within 10 minutes of knowing about an incident whether or not they should shelter-in-place, they’re going to call for one as a precaution. Emergency Services plans to release an action report within a week of how to improve emergency and company response in the future.
Bayer CropSciences did issue a release late Thursday afternoon.
“We fully recognize our critical role in the emergency communications process. Today's review session provided an important opportunity to hear from all responders involved in the Aug. 28 incident at the site and to begin to determine what worked and what did not.

Based on the valuable input from the Metro 911 session, we are reviewing our emergency communications process and incorporating improvements to ensure prompt communications with area public safety officials in emergency situations. We also will actively participate in the follow-up Metro 911 reviews related to this incident.

Our highest priority remains the safety of the community and our employees. No other objective at the Institute site takes precedence to that priority.”

September 5, 2008 Charleston Gazette

'I'm only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency in the plant'

Bayer withheld details of fatal blast in calls to 911

Bayer CropScience officials repeatedly refused to give local emergency responders details about last week's explosion and fire, according to recordings of phone calls between the company's Institute plant and Kanawha County's Metro 911 Center.

CHARLESTON, W.Va.- Bayer CropScience officials repeatedly refused to give local emergency responders details about last week's explosion and fire, according to recordings of phone calls between the company's Institute plant and Kanawha County's Metro 911 Center.
Plant officials told dispatchers that there was an "emergency" in progress, but said the company instructed them not to provide more details. For several hours, plant officials would not say what had happened or where in the plant the incident had occurred, the recordings show.
"Well, I can't give out any information, like I say, we'll contact you with the, with the proper information," a plant gate worker who identified himself only as Steve told a 911 dispatcher.
That comment came when emergency responders called the plant at 10:39 p.m., about 14 minutes after Bayer said the explosion occurred on Aug. 28.
One worker, Barry Withrow, a 45-year-old father of two from Cross Lanes, was killed. A second plant worker was seriously injured. Thousands of area residents were advised to take shelter in their homes because of possible fumes from the fire.
Dale Petry, Kanawha County's emergency director, said that local responders weren't sure what to do, because Bayer gave them precious little information for several hours after the explosion.
"We didn't know what to do," Petry said. "We couldn't get anything out of them. We want to protect the community, and we need more information to do that."
Bayer officials did not return repeated phone calls for this story. Late Thursday afternoon, the company issued a prepared statement that said it "shared all available information with Metro 911 as that information became available over the course of the incident."
"The transcripts of the calls to Metro 911 which were released today represent only a portion of the communication between Bayer CropScience and emergency response officials during this event," the statement said.
During the first 911 call last week, the dispatcher asked what had occurred, and the plant worker said, "Well, I haven't got instructions as to what to tell everybody yet."
"We just have an emergency alarm in progress right now," the plant worker said. "And we'll contact you as soon as I get the information."
Three minutes later, the Metro dispatcher called back at about the same time that a plant worker picked up the phone to call 911. The worker said Bayer needed an ambulance immediately for a burn victim.
Again, the dispatcher asked for more information. "Well, I can't give out any information until I get my information," the plant worker responded.
About a half-hour later, Bayer officials called 911 again with an update.
"We have an emergency at the Bayer CropScience plant, and the only information I can give you is that ... you might want to alert the community," the Bayer official said in that 11:15 p.m. call. "My supervisor informed me to tell you to alert the community that there is an emergency at the plant right now."
The dispatcher asked for more information, and specifically asked if the explosion had occurred in the unit that produces the pesticide Larvin.
"I'm only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency in the plant," the Bayer worker said.
About 20 minutes later, at 11:35 p.m., frustrated emergency officials issued a shelter-in-place advisory for South Charleston, Dunbar, Nitro, St. Albans and Institute.
Over the next 1 1/2 hours, Bayer officials called the Metro 911 center four more times. In each call, plant workers reported only that there had been an emergency, that plant teams were responding to that emergency, and that they would call back with an update.
Sometime around 1 a.m., county officials were given more details about where the explosion occurred and what chemicals might have been released from the plant.
Bayer officials called Metro 911 four more times between 1:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. Each time, plant workers repeated that, "We just wanted to keep you informed that our emergency team is still responding to our emergency."
During a community meeting in Institute Thursday night, longtime local emergency official Mark Wolford blasted Bayer, saying that the company's in-place emergency team had simply ignored requests by local officials for information during the event.
"We have to have adequate, thorough and timely information to make decisions," Wolford said. "We didn't get it."
But Institute Volunteer Fire Department Chief Andre Higginbotham said that he was at the plant gate during the incident and was receiving regular updates from Bayer's emergency team.
Higginbotham, who is a Bayer employee, said that it was his decision not to issue an earlier shelter-in-place advisory to residents. Under the county's emergency plan, Higginbotham was the on-scene local, non-plant incident commander.
"I felt like at that time it was safe," Higginbotham said. "We were constantly relaying information back and forth with each other."
Federal records released Thursday showed that Bayer did not report the incident to the National Response Center - the clearinghouse for reporting hazardous-materials accidents to the government - until 12:37 a.m., more than two hours after the explosion.
The report indicated "a release of material due to a fire and explosion in the water deluge system."
The National Response Center, run by the Coast Guard for other federal agencies, received two other reports about the Bayer incident. Both came in before Bayer's own report.
At 11:15 p.m., Institute native Catherine Davis called the NRC after hearing about the explosion from her mother, who still lives in Institute.
"This happens all the time," said Davis, who now lives in Arizona. "They never tell anyone.
"We'd go outside, and some crazy flames would be shooting up or we'd smell something and we'd call the plant and they'd say that nothing happened," Davis said. "But then, three hours later, you hear the emergency broadcast."
And at 11:34 p.m., Ryan Raner of Vancouver, Wash., called the NRC after hearing about it from "close companions" in the Institute area, according to the NRC report of Raner's call. by Ken Ward Jr.

September 5, 2008

Residents fuming over lack of details from Bayer plant

INSTITUTE, W.Va. - Angry western Kanawha County residents complained Thursday night that chemical company officials and local emergency authorities told them too little too late about the explosion and fire a week ago at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant.
Nearly 100 people turned out to ask questions and voice their opinions at a community forum sponsored by the group People Concerned About MIC. The organization is named for methyl isocyanate, a toxic chemical responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster and a major pesticide ingredient used at the Institute plant.
"I've lived through three horrible blasts, and this last one was the worst one," said Warren Ferguson, one of a core group of longtime Institute residents who spoke out at the evening meeting.
Donna Willis, another longtime resident, said government officials have never done much to help police the local chemical companies.
"I've been imprisoned in my house with my children and no one will stand up for me," Willis said.
Maya Nye, a St. Albans native who organized Thursday's meeting, distributed a list of questions about what chemicals were released, and why residents weren't told more by Bayer.
"Why was confusing information given to the community during the first hour after the explosion?" Nye said. "Why did it take over an hour to initiate the shelter-in-place notice?"
But Bayer officials declined an invitation to provide a speaker to answer such questions, though some residents wondered if a company representative secretly sat in on the meeting.
Through the Charles Ryan Associates public relations firm, Bayer issued a statement Thursday afternoon that said the company "only recently learned of this evening's forum."
"At this point in time, there is no additional information available beyond what has already been covered by the media, and we have therefore not offered to participate in tonight's forum," the statement said.
Bayer officials did not return repeated phone calls Wednesday or Thursday.
The Thursday night meeting was held at the student union on the West Virginia State University campus adjacent to the sprawling Institute chemical plant.
Some students and faculty joined local residents at the forum, as did a few representatives of state environmental groups.
Jesse Johnson, the Mountain Party's nominee in the 2008 race for West Virginia governor, spoke at the meeting and complained that media covering the event would not mention that he was the only candidate to attend.
"This is an example of what happens when you have a government that is open for business," Johnson said, mocking Gov. Joe Manchin's now-defunct state slogan. By Ken Ward Jr.

September 5, 2008 , West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Community furious over Bayer stonewalling after explosion

By Scott Finn

Last week, an explosion at a Kanawha County chemical plant killed one worker, severely burned another and forced thousands of residents to shelter in place.

Last night, about 100 people gathered at West Virginia State University, looking for answers about the explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant – especially this: Why did it take more than an hour for emergency officials to call for residents to shelter in place?

Emergency officials blame plant managers, who refused to tell them what was going on inside the plant.

Company officials weren’t able to defend themselves, because they declined to show up at the community meeting.

Last Thursday night, a few minutes before 10:30 pm, a huge explosion at the Bayer CropScience's plant in Institute rocked houses that were miles away and sent a 100-ft fireball into the air.

Extremely dangerous chemicals are stored at the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute, including MIC, the same chemical that killed more than 3,000 people in 1984, after a leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

In Institute, only a chain link fence separates the Bayer facility from the state’s only historically-black college, West Virginia State University. Hundreds of people live nearby, and thousands are within a five-mile radius of the plant.

When there’s a chemical leak – especially some kind of explosion – time is crucial. People need to know whether to evacuate or to shelter in place -- turn off their air conditioners, duct tape their windows and stuff towels in their doors.

But almost 15 minutes after the explosion, the Kanawha County Metro 911 Center still hasn’t heard anything from Bayer officials. Finally, someone gets ahold of a worker named Steve at the front gate, according to a recording of 911 calls obtained by the Charleston Gazette:

Dispatcher: Anybody call from the plant yet?
Phone ringing
Steve: Main gate, Steve.
Dispatcher: Hey, this is Metro 911. What do we have, do you know?
Steve: Well, I haven’t got instructions as to what to tell everybody yet. But we just have an emergency alarm in progress right now.
Dispatcher: I’ve got the county emergency services director trying to find something out. Do you know what areas of the plant or anything?
Steve: Well, I can’t give out any information. Like I say, we’ll contact you with the proper information.

At 11:15 pm, almost an hour after the explosion, the 911 dispatcher tries again to get more information out of Steve:

Steve: What it is, we have an emergency at Bayer CropScience plant, and the only information I can give you is that we’ll…and you might want to alert the community, my supervisor informed me to tell you to alert the community there is an emergency in the plant right now.
Dispatcher: Just real quick…we have reports it was in the Larvin unit. Are you able to confirm or deny that?
Steve: No, I’m only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency in the plant.

The response, or lack of it, infuriated Mark Wolford, a long-time firefighter and former public safety director for Kanawha County. He represented the Kanawha County Commission at a community meeting held at West Virginia State.

“What’s going on? The response is, we have an emergency in the facility and I can’t tell you anything more than that. I think everybody in this areas knew they had a heck of an emergency in the facility when they heard the boom and saw the big fireball,” Wolford said.

No one from Bayer attended the meeting. In an e-mail, a company spokesman said that they had no new information to share that hadn’t already been reported in the media.

Some people at the forum, such as Joline Brady of Scott Depot, said Bayer officials should be held responsible – perhaps criminally responsible.

It’s not without precedent. Wolford told of another leak from the Institute facility in 1985, when a company official tried to deny that MIC had leaked from the plant.

“I’m not saying you need to do that to this plant manager,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what: something needs to be done. We need to take some kind of action, when an incident occurs, the information is passed on in a timely manner to the Metro 911 center so we can tell you all what to do.”

With no company officials present, some people at the meeting directed their anger at Andre Higginbotham, an employee at the Bayer plant and chief of the Institute.

One woman criticized his decision not to call a shelter in place – which other county officials ended up calling later:

Higginbotham: I have a choice to make here as incident commander for the town of Institute: Do I call a shelter in place? There was no smell, no odor. We had parameter people going out, checking for odors, and we didn’t have an odor at this time. I was talking to EOC uptown, and I said, it seems pretty safe for the town of Institute, we’re not picking up any odors.
Woman: Based on smell? Based on smell and the wind? This was an explosion. And you felt comfortable in not sheltering, and not evacuating, based on a smell?
Higginbotham: Yes, I felt comfortable.

Third-party gubernatorial candidate Jesse Johnson, who also lives in the area, asked Higginbotham a question that was on a lot of people’s minds: what chemicals were they exposed to? Company officials haven’t been specific, except to say the fire broke out in a tank full of waste products from the production of Larvin, an insecticide that kills bugs and their eggs:

Johnson: What chemicals were released into the atmosphere for this community?
Higginbotham: I’ll let the Bayer officials answer that question.
Johnson: And when will we find out the answer to that question.

Several people at the meeting brought up who else was not there: no one from Governor Joe Manchin’s office, no state legislators, and not even the leadership of West Virginia State University. Here’s Donna Willis, a long-time resident of Institute.

“It doesn’t matter that we’re allowing students from all over the country to apply at West Virginia State University,” Willis said. “And where are you, West Virginia State University? Where are their representatives? To sit up there and say, we’re taking other people’s children’s lives in our hands.”

Willis says the constant orders of shelter-in-place – and the fear of chemical leaks, explosions and other exposure – make her a prisoner in her own home.

“You know, when you imprison a person in jail un-righteously, when they get out, they sue you and they get millions of dollars,” she said.

“I’ve been imprisoned in my house with my children for years. And no one, no one will stand up for me. So year after year, we breathe this stuff in, we make the calls, and we complain and complain and complain, and the company gets, maybe every once in a while, tagged with a money fine, $15,000 for this, $20,000 for that.”

Metro 911 wasn’t the only agency kept in the dark. Company officials at first refused to allow in Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency management for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. He remembers getting in after 3 a.m. – almost five hours after the explosion.

He says the explosion could have been much worse. But it revealed dangerous weaknesses in the current emergency response system.

“It’s absolutely crucial that the private industry and the governmental agencies all be working together,” he said. “And the communications not only between the responders but with the general public need to be improved, so that people can know the true extent of the threat they’re facing.”

There was another theme at this meeting: Déjà vu.

“And it seems like old home week,” Wolford said. “I hate to say this, but 25 years ago, when I had black hair, I was standing here, saying the same thing. And you know what? It’s pitiful. We haven’t got any better. We have not got any better.”

Wolford says the Kanawha County Commission is promising a full investigation into what happened – in case the next time there’s a chemical accident, we’re not so lucky.