Explosion and fire in chemical plant: what we know so far

Three people confirmed dead, one due to metal piece thrown off from blast, one body found on site, one worker died later in hospital, and seven more people injured

Two people watch flames in the aftermath of the explosion in the chemical plant in Tarragona on January 14, 2020 (by Núria Torres)
Two people watch flames in the aftermath of the explosion in the chemical plant in Tarragona on January 14, 2020 (by Núria Torres) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

January 15, 2020 10:30 AM

An explosion and subsequent fire occurred in an industrial estate near Tarragona, southern Catalonia, on Tuesday evening. While the causes of the incident are still under investigation, some details, casualties and disruptions as a result are already known as emergency services continued working at the scene overnight and on Wednesday morning. 

What happened? 

There was an explosion in a reactor tank of propylene oxide which caused a vertical column of smoke, according to Albert Ventosa, the fire chief in charge of the operation. This led to a second explosion at an industrial electricity transformer. 

Firefighters are continuing to work to contain the flame in the affected tank by injecting nitrogen. As this task is automated, most of the firefighters on the scene are tasked with searching for missing people in the affected area. Interior minister Miquel Buch said that the process of extinguishing the fire is going well, but there is still a restricted area affecting seven companies in the polygon.

Where did the incident happen?

It happened in Tarragona's petrochemical industrial estate, the biggest in southern Europe. Specifically, the incident occurred in the company IQOXE, the only firm producing ethylene oxide in the whole of Spain, in the town of La Canonja.

The factory is located less than a kilometer from the N-340 national road, and between 1-3 kilometers from the closest populated area.

What is the cause? 

This is not yet clear. 

Were there any casualties?

Three people in total have been confirmed dead. Someone was reported missing after the blast, and emergency services set about searching for them. A body was found on Wednesday morning, and was later identified to be that of the missing person. On Wednesday evening a factory worker who had been transferred to hospital with serious burns died as a result of their injuries. An additional seven people were injured, three of whom remain in hospital.

Of the seven injured, five were given the okay to go home by Wednesday night, while two others are still in hospital.

Were there consequences outside the factory due to the explosion?

Yes, one person living in Torreforta neighborhood, in Tarragona, three kilometers from IQOXE, died due to the impact of an unidentified metal object weighing hundreds of kilograms shot off from the factory after the explosion. The metal piece measured 122 x 165 centimeters. 

What measures were put in place by authorities?

Shortly after the incident, the 'Plaseqcat' chemical alert was issued and people in the surrounding area were told to stay indoors for the following two hours, especially those living in Vila-seca, La Canonja, and the Bonavista neighborhoods of Tarragona.

Was there danger for the population due to the smoke?

No, there was never evidence of toxic pollution.

How were the locals nearby warned?

Security sirens were about to be activated, but when it was clear there was no danger for the population, the order was halted and no sirens were heard.

This has caused controversy among some citizens, who said the only way to know they had to stay indoors were via social media and a civil protection car with loudspeakers.