TEXAS CITY, Tex. – A crane dropped its load onto a pipe at an oil refinery Friday, unleashing a hydrofluoric acid cloud that forced the evacuation of at least 2,000 people and sent more than 100 others to hospitals, officials said.

Workers at Marathon Oil Co. sprayed water into the vapor cloud Friday night in an attempt to bring it to the ground, and the leak was sealed off, company spokesman Ira Winston said.

None of the 128 people taken to AMI-Danforth Hospital were seriously injured, and most were treated for minor respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation, hospital spokeswoman Beverly Boase said.

Further Observation

Seventeen of those people were admitted to the hospital for further observation, she said.

Another 19 people were treated at Mainland Center Hospital, a nursing supervisor said.

A crane accidentally dropped parts of an industrial heater it was carrying at about 5:20 p.m., shearing a pipe leading into a storage drum containing the acid, Winston said.

The acid vaporized, releasing a cloud that prompted the evacuation of a 50-block residential area, he said.

Residents were moved from their original refuge site at the Nesler Civic Center to Northside Elementary School on the other side of this city southeast of Houston on Galveston Bay because officials feared that the cloud would spread, officer Robert Elliott said.

Some residents, such as J. D. Hughes, who lives five blocks from the plant, went to stay with relatives across town. Hughes said he was in his house and heard someone yelling outside and went to check shortly after the accident.

“A guy came running down the street and hollered at us to get out of there, there was an acid leak over at the plant,” he said. “When I came out of the house, I couldn’t hardly breathe, so I ran back in and got my children out.

Towels Over Mouths

“I put some towels over their mouths and took them to my sister’s. It took about two hours for my breathing to get back to normal. It hurt my throat and chest real bad,” he said Friday evening. “I plan on going to the hospital a little while later.”

Hydrofluoric acid is poisonous if inhaled, and contact may cause burns to the skin and eyes. The acid was in a tank with a capacity of 850 55-gallon drums, but Winston said he did not know how much of the chemical was in the tank.

Texas City was the site of the nation’s worst industrial disaster when a docked freighter, filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded in April, 1947, killing 576 people and injuring 5,000.