It never stopped.
At least, that’s how it felt this past weekend during the fire at Shell’s chemical plant in Deer Park. The fire burned all Friday night, was extinguished for a few hours Saturday morning and reignited in the afternoon. Those of us living near the plant found out from Shell that the fire was extinguished again as of Sunday evening.
I was on my way home to Deer Park when I began receiving messages from family, friends and residents in the area to tell me about the fire Friday afternoon. The urgent messages came in constantly: Is your family OK? Are you OK?
The truth is, we are never really sure if we are OK in these situations. Pasadena resident Juan Rodríguez asked, “How safe am I in an area that has a lot of refineries?” It’s a question we don’t always have an answer to. And that’s what fuels so much fear for residents in east and southeast Houston, home to so many petrochemical facilities.
I arrived home at 3:45 p.m. Friday and frantically rushed my 2-year-old son into the car to take him to my mom in Pasadena, just so he was a bit farther from the facility. I then drove straight toward the Shell plant and began photographing the incident from across Highway 225.
I am a lifelong resident of the southeast suburbs of Houston. Born and raised in north Pasadena. Very recently, my wife, son and I moved to Deer Park just down the road. Photographing this area, bringing light to the people and the living conditions, has been a prominent part of my work for over six years. Growing up in the area made me realize that nothing I photograph is new to me, or those around me. What goes on here just hasn’t always drawn attention, and that’s the goal with my work: give voices to those who are unheard and put faces to issues dealt with every day.
Arriving at the scene of the fire brought back memories of the Intercontinental Terminals Co. disaster in 2019.
“I hope this doesn’t last multiple days like ITC did,” I thought.
Then my thoughts switched to concerns about workers at the refinery. Was everyone safe? Were workers from Shell and nearby refineries being evacuated? One worker from a nearby refinery told me he “could almost taste the smoke because of how dense it was” at his job.
As these thoughts raced through my mind, I walked toward the refinery entrance to capture images of the fire. I was initially cautious because it wasn’t clear what was burning, but I decided to get closer. I’ve never breathed clean air here before, I thought. What will a few minutes do to me?
That may not have been the best thought process, but a lifelong lack of clean air is normal for many in the area, so I got as close as possible.
Walking on the feeder road toward what would normally be oncoming traffic was eerie. I knew as I walked I was just getting closer to the problem, but I was drawn to it. I felt I needed to show people what many residents fear will happen every day. It’s never a surprise to anyone — we view these incidents as more of a “when” rather than an “if.”
I ended up near the Gate 22 entrance of the Shell facility. A partially covered emergency sign at the entrance looked symbolic. The sounds of the fire, flares and firefighters battling the flames was almost deafening. But all I could do was watch and hope the situation would be handled quickly. In the back of my mind, I knew that was likely too optimistic. And it was. The fire burned for approximately 48 hours from the start.
Flares roared for at least the first 14 hours after the fire started. I say “at least” because I was finally able to fall asleep around 5 a.m. Saturday due to the volume of the flares, so I’m not sure when they stopped. It is difficult enough to see the incident occur, but hearing it from miles away adds another layer to the fear.
Upon waking up about four hours later, I immediately began checking for updates from Shell. At about 10 a.m., Shell released an update stating the flames were extinguished and I felt relief — still shook up from the situation, but relief nonetheless. But as always, that was cut short when the fire reignited again Saturday afternoon. Right back to fear and worry — but this time it felt as if things weren’t under control, no matter what updates we were given.
So the weekend was full of constant checking for updates, not sleeping and going out to the refinery every few hours to check on the fire. My wife told me, “Joe, please relax. Stop going out there, it’s late,” to which I responded, “I can’t relax. I just can’t. I’ll be back in 20 minutes. I won’t stay long.”
I knew that wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was the compromise we reached. I could not ignore the fire we could see from home.
The fire was eventually extinguished Sunday evening, but the community was not informed of this until Monday around noon. So many hours spent worrying about the fire were unnecessary, but we were just not updated.
It was now over. Fifteen contractors had been hospitalized and released, and emergency officials assured residents the air was safe.Monday morning, as I drove on Highway 225 towards the city, police were no longer blocking the intersections, cones were moved from the street, the parking lot at the refinery was full. It was back to work for many. Business as usual for the city.
But for many residents, the fear and frustration did not just end there. Isabel Ferry, who lives nearly five miles away from the facility, told me the incident at Shell makes her feel hopeless, worried for her family and her community and scared about when it’s going to happen again.
And that is a sentiment I can relate to. My entire family works in these refineries. Friends of mine work in them. Most members of the nearby communities are somehow connected to someone within the refineries. Most of us would just like these jobs to be safe for our loved ones and neighbors.
But aside from worrying about family members working at the refineries, I found out information during the incident that truly changed how strongly I feel about this situation.
My cousin Ricky called me out of the blue and told me he was proud of the work I was doing surrounding this fire and that he loved me.
Speaking to my grandma later that evening, I brought up the conversation and she paused for a second and said, “Mijo, you know his dad died in a chemical explosion, right?”
I didn’t know this.
She went on to explain that his father, Alfred James Martinez, was one of the 17 people who died in the 1990 ARCO Chemical explosion in Channelview, right across the ship channel.
Joe Robles IV is a Houston-area independent photographer and longtime resident of North Pasadena. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter and Instagram @joeroblesiv.