Danny Hardy was sitting in the third-row pew at Deer Park First Baptist Church when the cellphones began buzzing in unison. Several men quickly shifted in their seats — all of them first responders or employees at one of the dozens of nearby refineries and chemical plants.

Hardy, a retired police officer and head of the church security team, wasn’t alarmed. After living in the Houston suburb of Deer Park for nearly 40 years, he was accustomed to the sight of refinery flares burning in the night, the occasional stench of chemicals and the sound of sirens wailing in the distance. Deer Park was nestled in the heart of North America’s petrochemical industry. These things were to be expected.

But as ripples of conversation spread through the congregation, it became clear that this emergency alert — on Sunday, March 17, 2019 — was different. After a few tense moments Wayne Riddle, a former mayor, stepped onstage and addressed the crowded worship center.

There had been an accident. A facility housing millions of barrels of volatile chemicals was burning a little more than two miles away. City officials had issued a shelter-in-place advisory.

Hardy looked out a window and saw a towering plume of ink-black smoke blanketing the sky. He instructed a team of 30 deacons and volunteers to shut off the air-conditioning system and guard the exits. Everyone needed to stay inside, safe from whatever fumes might be lurking outside.

The choir sang a worship song to calm the parishioners: “Lift your voice / It’s the year of jubilee / And out of Zion’s hill / Salvation comes.”

Read the full article about fires at chemical storage sites by David Leffler and Savanna Strott at Grist.