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An Occupational Safety and Health Administration official said Friday that employees' work orders will play a vital part in the investigation of an explosion and fire that ripped through an Atlantic Richfield chemical plant, killing 17 people.

"We will be looking at work orders of employees to determine exactly what was being done at the time of the accident," said Gerard Scannell, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.Scannell also announced during the afternoon news conference that officials plan to begin a study of petrochemical accidents.

5000+v "We're not sure if these type of petrochemical accidents are on the rise, but we aim to find out," said Scannell.

"A study will begin soon, conducted by the John Gray Institute of Lamar University in Beaumont. At the end of the study, we hope to have a major petrochemical conference to announce the results of that study," Scannel said.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Gerard F. Scannell was en route to Houston to lead a federal investigation of the accident, the Labor Department said.

People as far as 20 miles away reported hearing the blast at the plant, which has more than 350 employees.

"I seen a big flash cross in front of my eyes. I looked over to my left and I saw a big ball of fire. . . . It looked to me like a tank run off, you know, like a rocket just took off," said Mike Zugel, a truck driver.

"I was in a trailer and I was sitting down about to get up, and it sounded like a car ran into the side of the trailer," said Tommy McBridge, who was working at a janitorial service not far from the plant. "When we went out of there, it was like a nuclear explosion - just orange flames."

"It sounded like somebody was breaking the house in," said Deborah Baumbach, who lives six miles from the blast site.

Plant manager Earl McCaleb said two tanks that collected waste water and chemicals exploded for an unknown reason. The larger tank held 900,000 gallons, he said. The company had no capacity figure for the smaller tank.

"They were not cleaning out the tank," McCaleb said.

A truck of the sort used to remove wastes was in the area of the tanks but it was not immediately known if it had anything to do with the explosion, McCaleb said. One body was discovered in the cab of the truck, officials said.

Kathryn Cox, a member of the plant cleaning crew, said she and several fellow workers had just finished their jobs when they heard the explosion.

"We didn't look back," she said. "We just started running and we just kept running."

The body found in the truck was that of an employee of a contractor. Of the other bodies found by midday Friday, five were Arco Chemical employees, and 11 were employed by a contractor, Austin Industrial Inc. of Houston.

Henry Kelly, president of Austin Industries, said his company had 150 workers at the plant for maintenance and construction. He said it has had an excellent safety record during 5 1/2 years working there.

The plant had one safety citation, received in 1988 for a death at an off-site fire training building, McCaleb said.

Initially, authorities described Thursday night's blast as relatively minor and said no injuries were reported and no evacuations necessary. McCaleb said there was no attempt to withhold information.

It was the second major loss of life at a Houston-area petrochemical plant in nine months. On Oct. 23, a Phillips Petroleum Co. plastics plant in Pasadena was hit by series of explosions that killed 23 workers and injured 130.

On June 8, two people were injured in a spectacular explosion and fire at a chemical packaging plant in Pearland, south of Houston.

Arco Chemical, which is based outside Philadelphia, has been running the Channelview plant since 1980, three years after it went into operation.

The plant produces 560 million pounds of propylene oxide, used to make flexible foam for seat cushions and bedding. The substance also is used for cleaning compounds, according to a company brochure.

The plant also annually produces 1.3 billion pounds of styrene monomer, used for insulation, foam drinking cups, packaging materials and automotive parts, and 1.7 billion pounds of methyl tertiary butyl ether, a high octane blending component used as a replacement for lead in gasoline.

McCaleb said four of the injured workers were treated at a hospital and released. One was admitted to a hospital in nearby Baytown.