The Firm . Wife of worker killed this year at BP plant says husband was thinking ahead to finishing career


Wife of worker killed this year at BP plant says husband was thinking ahead to finishing career

Retiring was on his mind

The day before William Gracia died in an accident at BP's Texas City refinery last month, he told his wife of 35 years that he was almost ready to retire.

"He told me the Sunday before this happened, while we were watching a football game, 'I want to give it two more years, and then I'm going to retire,' " Robbie Gracia said in an interview Thursday as her eyes welled with tears.

Instead, he became the third man to die because of an accident at the plant since a 2005 explosion killed 15 and hurt many more. She and the couple's children, Jeremy Gracia and Nicole Pina, intend to tell a federal judge next week that they believe their tragedy illustrates that BP hasn't solved deeply rooted problems of lax safety at the plant.

Pina said that when she saw her father at the University of Texas Medical Branch after the accident in the plant's ultra- cracker processing unit, she promised him "that I wasn't going to let them just sweep it underneath the rug, that I was going to be there until the end."

"I wouldn't want to put this on any other family, and if it doesn't stop now, six months from now there's going to be another family in there," she said.

Pina described her father as the glue that kept the family together. He was the cook, the comedian, the breadwinner and a grandfather of five.

"He was just everything, and now we're trying to put it back together. It's impossible. Every day you wake up, and it's never going to be the same," she said.

BP declined comment Thursday, but referred to its statement when Gracia died on Jan. 14, which said the company was saddened by his death and was investigating the cause of the accident.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board also are investigating.

Metal lid flew off

Gracia sustained fatal injuries when a metal lid that had been bolted down flew off a water filtration vessel as it was being restarted. The filtration system is attached to a compressor on the refinery's ultracracker unit, which makes raw materials used to process gasoline and other products.

BP said Gracia suffered a head injury. But Tony Buzbee, a lawyer for his family, said he also was burned. The company and investigating agencies are trying to determine whether hydrocarbons or chemicals played a part in the accident.

Don Holmstrom, head of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board team — who also led the agency's two-year probe into the 2005 blast — said Thursday that the investigators are identifying key pieces of equipment and securing substance samples for testing. He said they are a long way from determining the cause of the catastrophic failure.

"We're trying to determine why this filter vessel failed. We certainly believe it was subject to significant pressure," Holmstrom said in a telephone interview from Texas City on Thursday.

"We're looking at a number of scenarios that may have caused that high pressure that led to shearing of bolts and stripping of threads on bolts," he said.

Buzbee said a metallurgist is testing those bolts to determine if their age and condition contributed to the accident.

Accepted responsibility

BP has said since soon after the 2005 disaster that it accepted responsibility for the blast and learned from mistakes in failing to stress safety in operations and handling of hazardous materials, called process safety.

The company is spending $1 billion on upgrades and repairs at the plant, the first units of which were built 74 years ago. BP also has spent more than $1.6 billion settling blast-related civil claims, including all involving deaths.

But Jeremy Gracia, who has worked for about two years as a general maintenance contractor at the plant where his father was fatally injured, said he feels safer at other refineries.

"This one, you can take a look and see it's been neglected for so long. Now they're trying to fix it. That should have been done a long time ago," he said.

Robbie Gracia said her husband, who worked at the plant for 34 years and was an operations supervisor, didn't express concerns about safety there. She didn't worry about his safety either until the 2005 blast, when he helped find survivors in the rubble.

"We tried to get him to retire," she said.

Plea deal decision

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal may accept or reject a proposed plea agreement that calls for BP's North American products division to admit to a federal felony environmental crime, pay a $50 million fine and serve three years' probation to resolve a criminal probe into the blast.

Several victims critical of the proposed punishment as too lenient aim to speak at the hearing. Buzbee said the Gracia family can offer their perspective on BP's assurances that the company is addressing safety lapses.

"Who better to provide information to the judge than a family who was impacted literally less than three weeks ago?" Buzbee said.

In a court filing last month, BP said Gracia's death was a "powerful reminder that there is more to do. BP Products is committed to doing it."

Houston Chronicle
January 31, 2008