Television, authorities blamed for panic after plant explosion

February 26, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Erroneous television reports combined with contradictory statements from city authorities in the minutes after last fall's explosion at the Condea Vista chemical plant, contributed to a wave of panic and confusion in nearby southern Baltimore neighborhoods, say local residents, city, state and federal officials.

That conclusion was reached this week during a public "critique" of the emergency response effort after the accident, which was felt miles away. City officials at the hearing praised efforts to control the resulting chemical fire -- it was contained in an hour -- but acknowledged shortcomings in notifying the community. Those shortcomings were magnified by the media, they said.

"They were reporting erroneous information that scared people," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. "It would be great to rein them in."

"Getting the media under better control is something the city needs to do," said Rena Steinzor, a lawyer for Wagner's Point residents. "That was a big part of the problem here."

The explosion occurred at 6: 20 p.m. Oct. 13 as officials of the detergent ingredient maker mistakenly tried to use steam to clean a nickel reactor containing a reactive aluminum sludge.

In the aftermath, television stations reported -- based on statements by a police officer near the scene -- that four or more workers had died in the blast and that a toxic cloud -- shown in helicopter photos -- might threaten people.

Fire officials contributed to the sense of danger by keeping the media away from the accident for hours, with Torres arguing the plant was too dangerous. "If you go down there, I can't guarantee your safety," he told a reporter at 8 that night.

But in the end, no one was killed; five workers were injured. Plant officials told The Sun weeks later they would have welcomed a reporter. While three residents went to local hospitals after the accident, state environmental officials say their air tests show that the spectacular black plume did not pose a health threat.

But Wagner's Point residents believed the TV reports. Some took to the streets, trying to flee the neighborhood. Other residents broke through police lines to get to the accident scene.

Gail Bending, news director at WJZ-13 (Channel 13), which reported deaths, said station employees had talked about their policies and procedures in light of the report.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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