By Hannah Dellinger
Catherine McKeehan had trouble breathing as she took small bites of lunch. Her hands shook as she picked up a glass of ice water.
By Saturday, dark bruises were developing on the 77-year-old’s body from the debris that fell on her as she slept Friday in her home on Stanford Court in northwest Houston, one block from a major chemical explosion at the Watson Grinding and Manufacturing plant. Two people were killed and 214 homes, including McKeehan’s, were damaged.
McKeehan was trapped for 20 minutes, she said. Her daughter, Kim, screamed for help when she awoke and realized she couldn’t get to her mother.
Kim said she called 911, but the line was busy and she couldn’t reach an operator. Her mother was eventually rescued by neighbors who heard the screaming.
“It was very traumatic,” McKeehan said, as she tried to eat at an event hosted by personal injury attorneys courting new clients a day after the explosion.
The woman was tired and her headache had only gotten worse with time, she said.
She told me last night as I tucked her into bed at my house in Cypress, that she didn’t want to fall asleep,” said McKeehan’s other daughter, Rebecca. “She was afraid of it happening again. We just can’t sleep.”
Like many of the around 100 people who packed the restaurant for a meeting with lawyer Robert S. Kwok and 10 other attorneys from the firm, the McKeehans said they hadn’t had time to see a doctor yet.
Many were rattled and disoriented from the ordeal. They came to lunch for answers and in hopes of finding a way to recover.
Kwok told the crowd he would represent them in lawsuits against whoever is deemed responsible for the disaster. He said they would seek monetary relief for damages to property, mental and physical injuries and lost wages.
Miguel Puente Salazar and his family lived near the plant for over a decade. They paid off the mortgage on their house and Puente Salazar and his wife, Maria, said they were working toward retiring soon.
“They are emotionally destroyed,” said the couple’s adult daughter, Yesenia.
Puente Salazar awoke the morning of the explosion to sheetrock hanging down, insulation on his bed and glass from shattered windows scattered all over his house.
Maria cut her arm as she rushed out of bed, confused about what was happening.
The one thing in the bedroom that stayed in tact, Yesenia said, was a glass-framed image of the Virgin Mary above where the couple slept.
“It stood strong on the wall,” she said.
Puente Salazar and his wife are staying in a hotel paid for by their insurance, he said.
But about half of the dozens of families at the lunch said by a show of hands that they did not have homeowners insurance.
Wendy Bostick Honda and her family are staying in the first story of their home because the upstairs is too damaged.
My dad is kind of disabled he can’t walk much and he doesn’t want to leave,” Bostick Honda said.
The family said they haven’t felt normal since the explosion.
“I’ve been having a headache ever since,” Bostick Honda said. “And we’re all still hear noises and feeling vibrations. Last night, I kept having nightmares.”
The woman’s usually healthy 2-year-old dog won’t eat or even come out of her bedroom.
“Right now, I’m really worried about him,” she said. “He might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Bostick Honda added that she might be experiencing the same condition.
“I keep thinking, are we gonna have another explosion?” she said. “When is it gonna happen again?”
Because many of the residents at the meeting spoke Spanish as a first language, a large portion of them were confused about the advice from the attorneys.
Christine Lopez, who does not live in the area, came to the meeting to support her friend. As the woman listened to Kwok, she stepped up to translate the information to Spanish.
It’s not fair that there’s a language barrier,” she said. “Half of the people here were confused. Everyone should have the right to know what opportunities are available.”
Despite the language barrier for many, by the end of the meeting, a long line of people formed to give their information to the attorneys to sign on with the firm.
While some expressed they wouldn’t want to rebuild their homes in the same proximity to the plant, The Salazars said they are hopeful about rebuilding their home.
For the McKeehans, their now uninhabitable house was a dream come true 20 years ago.
“They were leasing a little house and I remember seeing the for sale sign,” Rebecca McKeehan said, as tears rolled down her face. “And I called my mom and told her about it.”
All the physical and emotional work the family did renovating and upkeeping the home they worked hard to own was erased with the explosion.
“That’s where they wanted to be,” said McKeehand. “That was my mom’s dream.”
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Learn more about the Houston plant explosion in our previous coverage: