2 confirmed deaths in northwest Houston building explosion

Two people have died after a massive building explosion in northwest Houston that rattled houses miles away early Friday morning.

The explosion was reported around 4:24 a.m. Friday at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing Co on Gessner Road near Clay Road.

Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Peña confirmed two deaths in the explosion, Gerardo Castorena and Frank Flores, both employees. They were reportedly at work early to use the gym on-site. 

The public is asked to avoid the area near the explosion site. Gessner Road between Genard Road and Clay Road will remain closed for the rest of the day.  Only residents will be allowed into the Carverdale and Westbranch neighborhoods until further notice.

Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña says they have now moved away from the hazardous response into recovery. He says a 2,000-gallon tank of propylene has been secured, and there is no active leak. Personnel are on the scene to monitor it.

The fire department says 18 people have self-reported to local hospitals complaining of minor injuries such as breathing problems and cuts. Officials say Health Department tests show there is no indication of air quality concerns.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo says anyone who does not need to be in the area should stay away. He warns that anyone caught looting will be charged to the fullest extent of the law.

Residents several miles from the explosion site felt the blast rattle their houses. The debris field is about half a mile.

Chief Peña says crews have searched more than 100 houses, and some of them are off of their foundations — especially those closest to the explosion site.

A temporary staging area has been established for displaced residents at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 4703 Shadowdale Drive. Nearly 50 people are currently being sheltered there while the Red Cross works on an overnight shelter.

Chief Acevedo says a criminal investigation has been launched. HPD Homicide, Environment Crimes and Houston Fire Arson are assisting in the investigation. He says the immediate area of the explosion will take four to five days to process. Authorities say the company is fully cooperating with investigators.

As part of the investigation, Chief Acevedo is asking anyone who was near the explosion or felt the blast to do a search around their homes from debris or anything that may be related. If you find something, you are asked not to touch it and to call police.

Authorities are also using drones to search rooftops, and a grid search is underway.

In Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Bane Elementary and Dean Middle School will be closed today for all students and staff. All other facilities will be open, and students will be kept indoors.

The Monarch School and Institute is also closed.

RELATED: Two Cy-Fair ISD schools are closed due to massive building explosion

Spring Branch ISD says facilities are fine and they are planning for a regular school day at all schools. All students will be kept inside as air quality continues to be monitored. Transportation delays are anticipated.

Watson Grinding and Manufacturing released the following statement on Friday night:

“Watson Grinding and Manufacturing experienced an incident in the early hours of January 24, 2020, that resulted in the fatalities of two of our employees and impacted our operations. We are saddened by the tragic passing of our coworkers, and our deepest sympathies are with their families for their profound loss.

 We are working diligently to address the situation and cooperating with the federal, state and local authorities investigating the accident. We are extremely grateful for the brave efforts of first responders who were on the scene immediately, and we will continue to give our full cooperation and support to their efforts.

 Our hearts go out to the families and businesses impacted by this incident and to our community.  At this time our immediate concern is the safety and wellbeing of everyone in the area and our employees.

 Further updates will be provided as more information becomes available.”