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Published May 26, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Trial by fire takes new editor away from desk duties

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

What I enjoyed about my almost-50-year career working for newspapers is that each day had the potential for adventure. You never knew what might happen.

Ben Royal learned that early on.

Ben had just started working as a copy editor at the Houston Post. Little did he know that when he arrived for work on May 11, 1976, he wouldn’t be editing stories but would write a front-page story after being witness to one of the Houston area’s most tragic accidents.
At 11:15 a.m. that day, a tank truck carrying 7,000 gallons of dangerous anhydrous ammonia crashed through the guardrail on the 610 West Loop and plunged onto noontime traffic on the Southwest Freeway. The truck exploded, scattering cars and clouds of toxic fumes over the area.

The blast ripped a hole in the highway overpass and damaged supporting columns in the heaviest traveled interchange in the state.
All that remained of the truck was four tires and a twisted hunk of metal.

The fumes that were released proved fatal to those who were too close.

Freeway traffic was closed from three miles in all directions. Nearby residents fled their homes.

The Houston Post building (now owned by the Chronicle) is located at that intersection. Enter Ben Royal.

According to a front-page story Ben wrote for the next day’s paper, he ran from the Post building after the explosion and could see a woman stumbling along the fence dividing the Southwest Freeway lanes.

He could hear her screams.

“I’m coming,” he shouted. “I’m coming.” She turned toward him. “Please help me,” she said. It was no longer a scream but a whisper.
According to Ben’s account, the one side of the woman’s face was gray, and strands of vomit fell from her mouth and down her blouse. She was in shock.

“I couldn’t get over the fence so I held her fingers through the wire strands,“ Ben wrote. He told her that aid was coming.
He saw another woman honking the horn of her small foreign car She had three children in the car with her.

“For the first time I felt the ammonia,” he wrote. “My eyes stung. I couldn’t breathe. The whole area was enveloped with the white fumes trapped in the depression beneath the overpass.”

The story continued. “I could see a man lying half in the road, his body hidden in the weeds growing alongside the ramp. A truck stopped, and the driver jumped out. He grabbed the man under the arms, pulled him into the truck and took off.”

Emergency personnel arrived and rescued the woman leaning against the fence and the people in the foreign car. They were taken away in ambulances.

One of the emergency technicians looked over his shoulder and yelled out at Ben. “Get out of here if you can.”

Ben started running back to the Post building. The odor got stronger and he cried like when he was in basic training in the tear gas chamber again.

He noticed the trees, bushes, weeds and grass turning black, curling up. Everything was dying.

Safely back in the Post building, he joined others on the top floor, above the fumes.

The accident claimed seven lives, including the truck driver. The National Transportation and Safety Board determined that the driver was probably not traveling at a safe speed.

Six of the victims died at the scene or shortly thereafter. The seventh died in 1979 from complications resulting from the accident. Almost 200 people were injured, including several Post employees, who suffered lung damage.

Although he doesn’t know for sure, Ben assumes the women he helped were survivors because most of the fatalities seemed to be closer to the accident.

The accident had long-term implications. Hazardous materials in large quantities are no longer allowed to be transported inside the 610 Loop, and the Houston Fire Department now has dedicated hazardous materials teams.

Ben left the Post and became a technical writer, eventually landing a job with a NASA subcontractor.

He is now retired and living in Iowa.

I have had some interesting days in my newspaper career, but nothing to match Ben’s experience 44 years ago.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)