Eva vs. Goliath
Eva Rowe was a wild child from a mobile home in the Louisiana woods until March 23, 2005, when her parents were killed in a refinery explosion in Texas City. Then she became a wild child with a fancy house in Beaumont and a dogged crusader who forced BP to own up to the truth about what happened that day.
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John Browne of Madingley, the once hailed and now semi-disgraced former chief of BP, could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had bothered to educate himself in the folkways of southeast Texas and neighboring Louisiana before purchasing the refinery that exploded to such devastating effect on March 23, 2005. His resignation this past May occurred after a British tabloid threatened to reveal details of some possible business improprieties committed on behalf of the man who was then Lord Browne’s lover. But the real scandal was that 15 people died and 170 were injured in the explosion at his Texas City plant, allegedly the result of major company-mandated budget cuts that turned the refinery into a death trap. This fact might have been lost in all the hoo-ha of outing a closeted gay CEO, but there are at least two people on this side of the Atlantic who want to make sure Lord Browne never gets a good night’s sleep, unless it is eternal: Eva Rowe, who hails from Hornbeck, Louisiana—population 435, just across the Texas state line—and her Beaumont attorney, Brent “Coondog” Coon. Any Texan who saw these two coming would probably have known to get out of the way, and quickly, but Lord Browne was not from these parts.
Eva’s parents, James and Linda Rowe, were two of the fifteen people killed in the explosion at the Texas City BP plant. While other families took generous settlements and returned to their lives, 22-year-old Eva, with more than a little help and encouragement from her attorney, refused to settle her case until November of last year, winning enormous concessions from the global oil company and emerging as an advocate for petrochemical plant safety in a way never quite seen before, in Texas or elsewhere. All along, there were those who suggested that it was time for Eva to move on; BP, after all, was offering her a multimillion-dollar settlement of her own. Shouldn’t she just let bygones be bygones? But that is not Eva’s way.
“My dad always called me his pit bull,” she proudly told me when we first met. The notion that a multibillion-dollar company deserves respect just because of its mighty existence is not one she’s ever had much use for. Over the past two years, she’s gone about making herself Lord Browne’s worst nightmare. With Coon and a CNN camera crew in tow last year, she tried to corner him at his London headquarters. During a deposition, she looked straight into the eyes of BP’s corporate counsel and asked him how he managed to sleep at night. She turned down one settlement offer by saying, “That sucks.” At a ceremony this past April in Texas City, where the College of the Mainland was to receive $5 million in honor of the victims of the explosion courtesy of BP, Eva was still ruthlessly sticking it to the company.
At first, she was on her best behavior, sitting quietly in the front row, sometimes dabbing delicately at her eyes with a wadded-up tissue. Her brown curls had been stylishly straightened for the event, and she had accented her eyes with heavy liner, so that she looked a little like a pretty Egyptian princess. She was dressed plainly, in slacks and a striped button-down shirt, though a lacy camisole showed beneath and drew the eye to a large, gleaming pendant hanging from her neck. She smiled modestly when a host described her as “one courageous individual” and looked on gratefully when Coon took the podium to talk about how important it was to take something bad, like the Texas City tragedy, and turn it into something good. “We wanted to be sure,” Coon said, “that the memories of her mother and father would last and that they would not have died in vain.”
Coon’s expensive blond dye job, his neatly trimmed goatee, and the sparkling-white collar and cuffs under his fine, dark suit belied his Vidor origins; his Piney Woods accent, full of East Texas timbre, did not. He read aloud from something called Eva’s Mission Statement, (which was projected on a screen behind him), explaining that, from now on, his client would “focus on a career of fighting for the right for a safe work environment. She plans to be available to those who need help in fighting for their right to earn a fair wage without risking their lives.” Eva’s tattooed boyfriend, who had formerly been her bodyguard, listened with interest from a seat near the front.
Then it was Eva’s turn to speak. After a standing ovation, she graced the crowd with another shy smile and even clasped her hands and stretched her arms out stiffly behind her back, like a nervous little girl. But Eva had spoken to adoring crowds more than a few times by this point. At the state capitol, she’d pushed for passage of Remember the 15, a bill designed to increase protections for workers at petrochemical plants. She had appeared before a congressional panel in Washington, D.C. She had been on 60 Minutes and CNN. The London Observer described her in a headline as “the daughter who is taking on the might of BP” and compared her to Erin Brokovich. Soon, profiles of her will run in both Glamour magazine and Ladies’ Home Journal.
But Eva’s voice, low, slow, and sandpapery, as if she had smoked a billion cigarettes before breakfast, suggested that the story of redemption Coon and all the others were spinning was only half the truth. What people back in Hornbeck had known for years, people like Lord Browne, his myriad representatives, and even Brent Coon had only recently discovered: No one tells Eva Rowe what to do. Because of BP, she said to the crowd, “fourteen families are denied the joy of the fifteen that are lost from their embraces forever.” Later on, she put it more plainly: “I hate BP,” she said to a smaller group. “I feel like they murdered my mother and father.”
“Ding! Ding! Ding!” Eva shouts as she pounds on the tiny bell at the receptionist’s desk of the Beaumont offices of Brent Coon and Associates. The pale, wide-eyed woman behind the counter gives her a look that is equal parts fright and disgust, but everyone else comes running, happy to see the firm’s most famous client. Some of them wear T-shirts with the firm’s name on the front and “Everyone has their 15 minutes of fame, we got 60 Minutes” on the back. Today Eva has arrived in her shiny new Escalade. She has tried to tame her unruly curls under a black velvet cap, and without the heavy eyeliner, she looks both younger and more combative. The silver belt buckle on her jeans is flamboyant, and a tattoo peeks out from the neck of her black T-shirt. When an attorney doesn’t come out to greet her fast enough, Eva hollers up a flight of stairs that she will slash his tires. “I like to cause a ruckus,” she says to me.
In that way Eva is evenly matched with Coon. In the large conference room there’s a photograph of him that must have been taken long before any and all midlife vagaries: His hair is short, he is clean shaven, and his suit is gray. That guy—“a middle-of-the-pack asbestos lawyer,” in the words of a detractor—probably would not have driven the black Corvette parked out front. Coon, once a minor player for Walter Umphrey’s juggernaut of a plaintiff’s firm, is now an emerging star in East Texas, and not just because of Eva Rowe—he plays in Image 6, his own band; runs Coondog Productions, which brings rock, country-western, and hip-hop concerts to Beaumont; and, separated from his wife, gets messages on his MySpace page from attractive women with names like Amber and Summer.
Listening to their attorney-client banter—some rebellious daughter on Eva’s part, some hectoring dad on Coon’s—it isn’t hard to remember that these two people have come a long way from the same part of the world, where life can be cheap and mean and many who leave are motivated by the powerful fear of landing back home, again, with nothing.
“Eva had a lot of problems” is the oblique, polite way those who knew her back in Hornbeck describe her past. On that day in March two years ago, she was, at best, a headstrong young woman with no particular goals in mind. She was twenty, coltish and skinny; she had not had a long-term job since leaving high school and was living with her boyfriend, a young man her parents considered a bad influence. Tired of arguing with her mother and father over her behavior, Eva had moved in with him in a shotgun shack near the high school. Nothing is too far from anything else in Hornbeck, a pretty town of oak-shaded lanes and small, well-kept homes on a hillside not far from Toledo Bend. There isn’t much real work there, there isn’t much to do—there are no cafes, shops, or movie theaters to speak of—and it isn’t hard to see why or how a bright but poor young woman could get herself into trouble, simply from a lack of alternatives.
James Rowe’s family had been in Hornbeck for three generations. He was the kind of guy who, after a storm, would get out his chain saw to help his neighbors remove fallen trees. Linda Rowe, who had come from a wealthier family in Southern California, was an active member of her church and a teacher’s aide at Hornbeck High. They had married at twenty and nineteen, respectively. They took their honeymoon at AstroWorld and then settled into a life in which the only thing they wanted for was money. Old photos show James and Linda as, in her words, “hell-raisin’ motorcycle people,” but when their son, Jeremy, came along, both worked hard to provide for the family. They lived in a trailer home down a dirt road on the outskirts of town, with a view of the rolling hills beyond. They raised chickens, pit bulls, and pigs. When Eva was born, James sold his motorcycle to pay the hospital bill; as time passed and there was less and less work in the surrounding area, he traveled farther and farther away to earn a living. In the best years, he made around $50,000; usually he averaged $30,000 to $40,000.
In other words, the Rowes were ordinary in the best sense of the word: They didn’t have much but contributed generously to their family and community. They enjoyed summer days fishing at Toledo Bend and the huge Rowe family Easter celebrations, where James’s mother, Doris, would lay out a spread of chicken and dumplings, fried fish, homemade biscuits, and coconut cake. When a nephew was born with a serious birth defect, the Rowes staged a benefit to raise the $3,000 needed to get him to a specialist.
But Eva was a restless, anxious child from the beginning. It bothered her that she lived in a mobile home and that her family sometimes had to resort to food stamps. Worse, she grew heavier and heavier as she got older, and the kids at school teased her mercilessly about her weight. Finally, in a characteristic display of willpower, she decided to show everyone by getting thin. She lost and lost, until her hair began to fall out. Soon, the little girl who had learned to fish from her father vanished, replaced by an angry, rebellious teenager. She argued with her parents over her boyfriend; they fought, in particular, about whether she was using drugs. “You can hate me all you want, but I still love you,” James used to tell her. Finally, she became such a handful that her father suggested she come to Corpus Christi, where he was working at a refinery for J. E. Merit Constructors. James was a civil superintendent at the plant, supervising the use of scaffolding, moving dirt, pouring concrete. He found Eva a job as a pipe fitter’s helper. She moved into his trailer and got to know her father all over again. “I never really appreciated him,” Eva told me. “I am really glad I had those six months.”
Refinery work was hot—113 degrees some days—and dangerous. One day, Eva felt the ground shake. Part of the refinery was on fire. “Are we going to die?” she asked a safety officer. “Only if there’s an explosion and we get hit by falling debris” was his best guess. After that, Eva says, “It was ‘uh-uh.’ I wouldn’t go back.” Eva left her father in Corpus and returned to Hornbeck and her old ways, partying, taking drugs, and drinking. She was a troublemaker, the kind of girl who could cause the local sheriff to shake his head in disappointment at the mention of her name.
By 2004, time must have been weighing heavily on Linda. She was in her mid-forties and might have seen that she could not change her willful daughter. Maybe, too, Linda realized she had spent much of her married life too far from the man she loved. She decided in October of that year to join James in Texas City, where he was again working for Merit as a civil supervisor at the refinery owned by BP. Linda would work in the toolroom, issuing equipment.
Eva, who hated to be alone, was not happy about the news. She begged her mother to stay with her in Hornbeck. Jokingly, she told her, “Mom, if you go there, you will die there.”
At night, BP’s massive Texas City refinery twinkles like a miniature city on the Gulf Coast. The second-largest refinery in Texas and the third-largest in the United States, it is a cash cow for its owner, producing almost half a million barrels of oil a day, nearly 3 percent of the nation’s total fuel use. But the oil business is cyclical; company executives cut back when the price of oil is low and push their plants to produce when the price is high. After BP acquired the plant from Amoco in 1998, Lord Browne’s administration ordered a company-wide 25 percent cost cut, and in the years that followed, that edict became standard operating procedure. According to government and internal reports uncovered during the discovery process of the plaintiffs’ lawsuits, by March 2005 the Texas City plant was understaffed, its equipment was antiquated, and safety procedures, which got in the way of higher profits, were followed casually, if at all. (New, outside investigations ordered after the explosion have confirmed these accusations.) Critics compared BPTC, as the facility was known inside the company, to a rubber band that was being stretched and stretched and stretched again. In a globalized market, it was just another outlying colony to be exploited, like Nigeria or Papua. Following a series of fires and deaths in 2004, the plant’s manager commissioned a report in which one worker summed up the situation succinctly: “This place is set up for a catastrophic failure; the level of investment for maintenance of operational integrity has been and continues to be deficient.” Another was even more blunt: “How would I describe BPTC? Lucky; BPTC is very lucky.”
That luck ran out on Wednesday, March 23, 2005. At 1:20 in the afternoon, the earth shook with such force that people felt it in Galveston. The smoke from the ensuing fireball was visible for miles. The Texas City plant looked like the scene of a terrorist attack, the ground covered with mangled pipe and torched, upended cars. Fingers, arms, and legs were scattered about the scene. The intense heat seared clothes onto workers’ skin.
At the time of the blast, Eva was heading west on Texas Highway 146, on her way from Hornbeck to Texas City, to spend Easter with her parents. About forty miles outside Galveston, she stopped at a gas station. When she went in to pay, in an inexplicable moment that still gives her chills, the attendant said to her, “Everything is going to be okay, my friend.” Eva shrugged off the comment but then noticed a television above the counter showing a news report about an explosion at the BP plant in Texas City. Her heart racing, she took out her cell phone and punched in her mother’s number. When there was no answer, she drove on to a relative’s house near Galveston Bay. From the front yard she could see across the water to the Texas City plant, where flames jumped and smoke poured skyward. Eva spent about thirty minutes there, watching the fire from the yard and on the big-screen TV. She drove to her parents’ home, hoping to find them there. The trailer was empty. She started calling hospitals. In several hours she had reached every one in the area. None had admitted a James or Linda Rowe.
Eva began to suspect the worst. She knew that her parents would have called her to say they were all right if they had been. It was three o’clock in the morning before she got any information. She reached a friend she had worked with at Merit, who was still in the company’s Corpus office. The friend told her that her father had been identified among the fifteen dead, but her mother had not. Victims’ families were meeting at the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, in Texas City. Eva should go there.
The scene at the convention center was grim. There were people screaming and fainting all around her and pastors praying with those sentient enough to do so. Someone asked Eva to get her parents’ dental records. She smoked cigarette after cigarette and held tight to her boyfriend. Eventually, both James and Linda were identified among the dead. Eva couldn’t look at the bodies.
“The day BP killed my parents, it was like my life as I knew it ended,” Eva told me. “I had to start all over.”
And she did, returning home the following Saturday to plan her parents’ double funeral. As the week wore on, the talk among the mourners turned increasingly from grief to money. The Rowes had died without writing a will; though they had lived modestly, they owned some land and had saved for years, and their estate was worth about $170,000. But those weren’t the funds up for discussion. It was, instead, the potential for a windfall from BP. “They were calling lawyers before I had buried my parents,” Eva said. (In Louisiana, next of kin can legally include the parents as well as the children of the deceased.) Meanwhile, lawyers called every day to offer their services. They promised big money. Millions.
But hiring a lawyer was the last thing on Eva’s mind, and it bothered her that her brother had found himself one even before the funeral. In fact, Jeremy’s attorney showed up at the wake and offered, as he had already done several times before, the services of his firm. “I had to cuss the man before he’d leave me alone,” she told me. “He still gave me his card after I went off on him.”
Easter was poisoned with grief and strife. The only person Eva trusted was Jeremy, who had always been her protector. (She had graduated from high school early, at sixteen, rather than stay the next year without him.) He and his wife, Shannon, and their two young children had traveled to the funeral from Minnesota and were staying in the trailer, while Eva slept at a cousin’s place down the road. On the night before Jeremy was to leave, Eva, unable to sleep, decided to head for her parents’ home. It was just after midnight when she drove her car through the darkened town and down the lonely dirt road toward the trailer. As she pulled into the driveway, her headlights caught Jeremy and Shannon shoving duffle bags into her parents’ Ford Explorer. Eva didn’t understand. She and Jeremy had agreed that nothing should be removed from the house. Had he changed his mind?
Eva jumped out of her car and began dragging the overstuffed bags out of the Explorer and flinging them back into the house. She tore at the zippers and reached inside. She found a favorite pair of her mother’s boots. One of her mother’s most beloved dresses. Some of her father’s clothes. “Why are you taking this?” she screamed at her brother. She searched the trailer, slamming desk and dresser drawers open and shut. Soon, everyone was screaming. According to Jeremy, Eva threatened to burn down the trailer with everything in it. She would later swear that he had threatened to kill her. Whatever the truth, what is not in dispute is that Eva raced back into the yard, slashed the tires of the Explorer, hopped in, and locked herself inside, weeping.
It was Eva, not Jeremy, whom most family members blamed for the fight. While Jeremy had always been the hard worker who walked the straight and narrow, Eva was the wild child. So when she demanded, a few days later, to be appointed the sole administrator of her parents’ estate, relatives, including her brother, lined up against her. On the last Friday in April 2005 and the first Monday in May, barely a month after Eva’s parents’ deaths, the family and friends of James and Linda Rowe collected in the columned white courthouse in nearby Leesville, Louisiana, the parish seat. Some were there to support Eva; most were there to contest her claim. Her grandfather Walter Rowe testified that Eva had once been a heavy marijuana user. A cousin talked about her bulimia. Her grandmother Doris testified, “Eva is trying to do better, but in the past she has given us all a lot of problems.”
Eva sat through most of the testimony stoically, but she was furious. Hornbeck, the only home she had ever known, was no longer home to her. Someone had ripped down her air conditioner, broken into her apartment through the hole, and cruelly erased the messages on her answering machine, including the last message her mother had left her. She was already getting letters from men in prison that began “Dear Rich Lady.” Friends told her she was too sad to be with; others wanted her to invest in their businesses or fork over a $2,500 “loan” on the spot. Her longtime boyfriend was pressing her to marry him, but she wasn’t sure about his motives. As she explained to me later, “People would say, ‘Eva, you’re so lucky,’ and I was like, ‘Are you retarded?’ I’m damn sure I’m not lucky.”
By then, however, she had found an attorney. A friend of a friend with union connections had suggested she contact Brent Coon, in Beaumont. Coon pitched in during the fight for the estate, and after the judge reluctantly gave Eva control, she followed the lawyer’s suggestion that she relocate to Beaumont to get away from all the pressure and unhappiness at home. Coon subsequently put many members of his firm at her disposal, getting them to drive her where she needed to go and keep her loneliness at bay. He let her spend weekends at his lake house and advanced her money to rent a place of her own. (He later guaranteed the note when she sought to buy a home near his pricey neighborhood.) “Brent saved my life,” Eva told me. “I had turned to drugs. He was the only one I had to talk to. I felt uncomfortable everywhere.” A few months later, he filed suit against BP on her behalf for $1.2 billion.
For Brent Coon, the deaths of James and Linda Rowe added up to more than a simple lawsuit. Friends of his had worked in the refineries, and he knew how dangerous they could be. Coon also represented the Texas chapter of United Steelworkers of America. Relations between that union and BP had soured long before the explosion. The union’s leadership was looking for a way to improve safety conditions and win more job security for its members, especially those who worked at the Texas City plant. A big victory against BP would not only help this effort, it would underscore the might of the 1.2 million-member organization. BP was certainly vulnerable: Despite a vaunted commitment by Lord Browne to protect the earth against global warming—Vanity Fair featured him in its “green issue” in May 2006, a year following the explosion—the company’s record on environmental issues was abominable. It had drawn plenty of public ire for leaking pipelines, exploding plants, and most recently, the despoiling of the Alaskan wilderness. Eva’s case would bring international attention to the union’s cause. It would also bring more clients and bigger fees to the attorney who represented her.
Of all the death cases, Coon felt that Eva’s was the most compelling, because she had “driven into the chaos” and because she had lost both parents. He also felt strongly that winning money would not be enough—for Eva, for him, or for that matter, for the United Steelworkers. As a concert promoter and performer, Coon understood the value of a public spectacle. He wanted to make an example of BP, and to do so would require a motivated plaintiff. As he’d later say on the steps of the Capitol in March, on the second anniversary of the explosion, in order to bring about change, “you have to have somebody up front to keep these wounds open.” Coon knew that most plaintiffs were disinclined to prolong the pain; they wanted to, as he put it, “settle the case and bury the bones.” He told Eva that pushing for a trial instead of settling immediately could mean a long and bitter battle. While this would keep the case in the news, it would also mean an end to her private life. Anything she had done in the past could come out during the litigation. She would be forced to tell her story over and over again, to lawyers and to the media; she would not be able to let go of her grief.
But unlike almost everyone else who’d lost loved ones at the Texas City plant, including her brother, Eva decided not to take a settlement right away. Coon had found his plaintiff. Eva was smart, she was angry, and she wasn’t afraid of rich, powerful men in good suits. “My personal feelings were, from a number of conversations, that Eva would be very tough for BP to work with,” Coon told me. He said that her case would “give us the opportunity to roll over some rocks and see what happened. We wanted to know. Labor wanted to know.” With Eva, there was a chance to peek inside the inner workings of a major corporation and hold it accountable for its sins.
Coon didn’t have to do much to stoke Eva’s anger. With all the sensitivity of a multinational corporation, BP had sent her a form letter immediately after the explosion, apologizing only for the death of James and ignoring Linda completely. Had they mistaken Eva’s father for her husband? The letter raised even more questions for her about the company’s integrity. Because she had worked at a refinery, Eva had been suspicious of BP from the beginning. “Plants don’t just blow up,” she told Coon early on. “Something else was up.” In Beaumont, Eva threw herself into the case, wanting to know about every pleading, every document discovered, every deposition taken. She called the law firm almost every day, hungry for details. When rulings went against the firm, she threatened to find new attorneys to take her case.
“I told Brent I wanted to know what, why, and how my parents were killed,” she told me. “And he better be ready to work his butt off.”
How the Rowes were killed was pretty straightforward. On March 23, 2005, everything that could have gone wrong at Texas City did. It was, as one lawyer explained to me, “a perfect storm.” Many of the employees on-site had been working longer hours than they should have been, either because management forced them to—the plaintiffs’ attorneys claim—or because, as the defense alleged, they wanted the overtime. For various reasons, in particular the absence of an experienced supervisor, there was not as much attention given to safety that day as there should have been. Start-ups and shutdowns are the most dangerous times at chemical plants, akin to taking off and landing for an airplane. In this case, an isomerization unit, which separates gas and liquid, had been shut down for routine maintenance. The unit was more than fifty years old. When it was started up again, it overflowed, releasing vapor and spewing flammable liquid into the surrounding area. As was typical during start-ups, BP had advised its own employees to clear the premises, but somehow contract workers, like those from Merit, didn’t get the word. Worse, BP had parked office trailers for Merit workers far closer to the isomerization unit than safety regulations allowed. It was a powder keg waiting to explode. An idling truck supplied the spark, and the entire area was engulfed in a ball of fire.
The question of why this had happened was much more difficult to resolve. For attorneys on both sides, the issue was assessing blame and deciding on the extent of the damages. Initially, BP blamed the unit operators. Then the company blamed the run-down condition of the unit. Finally, it shifted into condolence mode. Company executives flew in from all over to offer comfort, some more graciously than others. John Manzoni, then BP’s chief executive of refining and marketing business, was heading to Colorado for vacation when the plant exploded. “I arrived in Texas City at 3 a.m. with Lord Browne and we spent the day there—at the cost of a precious day of my leave,” he e-mailed a colleague, in a document gleefully collected by the plaintiffs’ attorneys. BP’s polished PR team dutifully filed reports from the scene: “Expect a lot of follow-up coverage tomorrow,” one PR executive e-mailed headquarters the day of the explosion. “Then I believe it will essentially go away—due to the holiday weekend … this is a very big story in the U.S. right now—but the Terri Schiavo story is huge as well.”
Soon, one of BP’s litigation attorneys, William Noble, was winging his way in from Chicago to settle the cases of those who had died. His orders from London were to pay top dollar to make them, and the attendant negative publicity, go away as quickly as possible; at least two plaintiff’s attorneys told me the company offered far more than three times what their clients could expect to win in court or on appeal, especially given the punitive-damage caps won by tort reformers in Texas and the pro-defendant nature of the state Supreme Court.
Brent Coon, however, was not inclined to end his client’s case so fast. Approached by the defense, he remained vague about his plans. “Brent was an evasive settler,” said one of the attorneys who opposed him. No one in the BP camp could figure out what was going on.
Part of what was going on was that Coon had stumbled into the legal equivalent of a gold mine. At first, BP’s attorneys fought to keep their most damning documents privileged and confidential; when a court order forced them to release the papers, they began dumping what would become seven million pages on attorneys for the plaintiffs. The judge in the case, Susan Criss, consolidated the plaintiffs’ cases, so that during the discovery process, Coon’s firm was working alongside battalions of lawyers reporting to well-known legal stars like Richard Mithoff, Joe Jamail, Ron Krist, and John Eddie Williams Jr. It wasn’t long before this consortium of attorneys learned why BP had been so eager to settle. Combing through the document dump, researchers found internal memos and reports dating back to 1999 that bemoaned the sorry state of the plant and suggested that disaster was just around the corner. Saving money at the expense of worker safety appeared to have been central to the culture of the Texas City plant. One cost-benefit analysis of the price of preventing a catastrophic explosion used the story of the three little pigs to explain its rationale for cutting costs: “The big bad wolf blows with a frequency of once per piggy lifetime.” When local managers tried to make improvements, executives in London often shot them down. In 2002, when the rising price of gas presented an opportunity to upgrade the facility, plant managers were told to “bank the savings.” Two years later, the plant generated $2 billion in profit. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from 1995 to 2005 BP led the refinery industry in deaths with 22 fatalities, a quarter of the total fatalities at U.S. refineries in that time period. OSHA also found that BP was the nation’s leader in refinery accidents—3,563 between 1990 and 2003, more than what was reported by any other member of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association of chemical manufacturers. In a report released on the morning of the March 2005 explosion that killed Eva’s parents, a worker had responded to a survey about conditions at the plant by saying, “Unit training is nonexistent … if this facility was an aircraft carrier we would be at the bottom of the ocean.”
Eva learned all this and became resistant to the company’s settlement offers. In the meantime, Coon had come to the conclusion that BP’s initial financial offer was mingy. “I personally felt that they were trying to give her less than other families,” he said. Of equal importance, though, was his desire that the documents chronicling BP’s willful disregard for worker safety be revealed to more than just the parties in the lawsuit. Usually, with the settlement of a big case, the documents encountered in discovery remain confidential. Coon and Eva, his eager student, wanted BP’s secrets aired. “We had preconditions to settlement” is how Coon put it. For Eva, the company’s refusal to disclose the pages became a deal breaker. “The only thing I wanted, they continued to say no to,” she told me. This state of affairs—BP’s refusing to publicly release its correspondence and Coon’s refusing to settle without it—went on for sixteen months. While some on the defense believe Coon was unduly influential in keeping Eva angry and uncooperative, she disagrees. “I might be from the woods, but I’m street-smart,” Eva told me. “They tried to treat me like I was stupid. I wanted the public to know. They couldn’t pay me enough to be quiet.”
With a September 2006 trial date looming, both sides began to prepare for a fight. The company’s attorneys scheduled Eva’s deposition and started investigating her background—her relationship with her parents, her old boyfriends, her relatives—as well as Coon’s. In his eyes, these were the usual dirty tricks of litigation; the defense saw them as measures they had been forced to take because of the plaintiff’s refusal to settle. In death cases, issues like living arrangements and harmony of family relations are used to establish damages, so defense lawyers were duty-bound to pry into Eva’s personal life to try to hold down the costs for their client. Coon, of course, seized the opportunity to paint them in the press as heartless bullies.
Eva’s deposition was scheduled close to the anniversary of the explosion. Immediately after her parents’ deaths, the Galveston county coroner had given her autopsy photos of her parents. Unable to look at them, she had turned them over to Coon for safekeeping until she felt ready. Now she looked: at the charred remains of her decapitated mother, at what she believed were streams of tears on her father’s bloodstained face. For Eva, there was no turning back.
People react to grief in different ways. Some retreat and some lash out—at just about everyone. Eva fell into the latter category, which unfortunately allowed the defense to compile a fairly lengthy dossier to use as leverage against her in the trial. Eva was aware of this, but it never caused her to waver from her decision not to settle. In fact, her tie to the lawsuit was the very thin thread that was keeping her tethered to life itself.
In September 2005 she had met and fallen in love with a young man from the Dallas area and left her new house in Beaumont to move in with him and start fresh. The two were in Louisiana when Hurricane Rita hit. According to the police report, they pulled into a gas station in Natchitoches with two 55-gallon drums in the back of a pickup truck and started to fill them up. The attendant told them he couldn’t sell that much gasoline because of the state of emergency. He was also worried about a possible explosion with so much gasoline vapor pooling around the truck. Eva started to argue, and her boyfriend pushed her back into the vehicle, but as they were pulling out of the station, she pointed a 9mm pistol at the attendant. As soon as they were gone, the attendant called the police, who caught up with the pair back across the Texas line. The police found crystal meth in the car, and Eva was charged with assault and possession of a controlled substance. The charges were later dismissed.
Only a month later, speeding along the highway near her home in Rockwall, Eva smashed up her new $85,000 BMW and was taken away in an ambulance with head and neck injuries.
By May 2006 things had gone south with the new boyfriend. “He didn’t support my cause,” she told me. “He just wanted me to settle and take the money. If you weren’t for my case, you were against me.” According to a police report, there had been an argument, presumably over money. The boyfriend told the officers who arrived at the scene that Eva had agreed to give him one percent of her settlement. When she went back on her word, he threatened to leave her. He also accused her of punching him in the face and threatening to kill him. No charges were filed.
In August the police appeared at the Rockwall home again. This time, the boyfriend had attempted to pack up his belongings. He told police that Eva said she would hurt herself and then call the police and claim it was his fault. She was charged with resisting arrest and possession of an ounce of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
Then the September trial date was postponed, and Eva went into an even deeper decline. On September 4, two state troopers stopped a white Dodge Charger in Jasper County for speeding. The driver of the car was a childhood friend of Coon’s named Ronald Hargroder, one of the many people Coon had charged with keeping an eye on his client. When the officer, Arnold Tevis, spied an open container in the car, he asked Eva and Hargroder to step out.
Eva’s speech, Tevis reported, “was raspy and slurred.” He looked in her purse and found plastic bags and an empty prescription bottle for Xanax, which Eva said she took for panic attacks. Noting her growing uneasiness, Tevis then asked to search the car. Eva agreed. He opened a pack of cigarettes and found several joints. Eva was arrested and handcuffed. When she complained of a panic attack, Tevis called an ambulance.
He then discovered two small bags on the ground beside Eva. One had an image of a devil printed on the front and a white powdery substance inside, which Tevis suspected of being methamphetamine. Another plastic bag had two tablets he could not identify. She was taken to jail in Jasper.
All the charges against Eva have since been resolved, but at the time, the defense’s intention to use this information gave her no small amount of anxiety. Still, anyone who thought it would deter her from pushing her case was sorely mistaken. If anything, she only grew more aggressive. “How can you live with what you’ve done?” she asked BP’s attorneys at her deposition. She wanted to go to London, to show her parents’ autopsy pictures to Lord Browne. “I couldn’t believe a man who got knighted can kill people,” she said to me. “I wanted to be like, ‘Look what you did to my mom. How does that make you feel?’” When she ran into the former manager of the Texas City plant at a hearing, she refused to shake his hand. “Brent,” she said to her lawyer, “you’d better get this man away from me or I’m gonna stab my high heel through his foot.”
It is the opinion of some defense lawyers that Coon realized in the summer of 2006 that a settlement sooner rather than later would be in the best interest of everyone. Just as BP would suffer irreparable damage in a trial, so too might his client. All the other cases involving deaths had been settled by then; Eva was the sole holdout, and though she remained committed, the case was clearly taking its toll.
As the fall wore on, Coon kept exploring with the defense ways to make a settlement that would be a win-win deal for everyone. Both sides agreed that a contribution to the community—in addition to Eva’s private settlement—might bring about an end to the case. But for Coon, a full, public release of the corporate documents he and his client had been able to read was nonnegotiable; BP was just as adamant about keeping those pages private. “We basically were playing chicken,” Coon admitted.
And so the sparring continued: Just before the new trial date, in early November, Eva appeared with her attorney on 60 Minutes in a segment that was devastating to BP. The company tried to recover by sending out thousands of letters addressed to “BP Texas City Neighbor,” claiming substantial improvements in the safety features of the plant and revealing plans to spend $1 billion on improvements in the next five years. Coon responded by charging BP with attempting to influence the jury pool on the eve of the trial.
By then, both legal teams had reserved floors in the best Galveston hotels and were ready for battle, but two weeks before jurors were to be selected, BP finally began to waver on the public release of its documents. Coon and William Noble, the company’s litigator, spent more and more time trying to work out a settlement down at Garza’s Kon Tiki Lounge, near the seawall. On the night before jury selection was to begin, the attorneys, well fueled on alcohol, tried to make peace one more time. The issue of a large charitable contribution came up again. What about money for the process safety school at Texas A&M University? Noble suggested. Or a contribution to the burn unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch?
Coon was receptive to the idea of donations, but he kept hammering Noble on the matter of disclosure. Finally, BP threw in the towel. The rest of the night was spent, Coon says, “getting closure”—East Texan for “drinking a lot.”
At four o’clock in the morning, Coon called his client. “We got what we wanted,” he told her. BP would donate $12.5 million to the Blocker Burn Unit at Galveston’s University of Texas Medical Branch; $12.5 million for the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M; $5 million to the College of the Mainland, in Texas City, for a safety program; $1 million to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital (James and Linda Rowe’s favorite charity); and $1 million to Hornbeck High, where Eva’s mom had been a teacher’s aide. BP also created a fund for victims of the explosion and pledged to match donations up to $6 million. And, of course, the documents would be made public so that everyone would know not just how but why James and Linda and thirteen other people had died. (Later, OSHA fined the company $21.3 million, the largest fine of its kind but still a pittance when compared with BP’s $4.66 billion net income for the first quarter of 2007. On the other hand, the Justice Department is considering criminal charges.) Eva’s personal settlement is confidential, but it was rumored to be comfortably in the multimillions. Her overwhelming emotion at receiving the news was one of relief. Even though it was early in the morning, she got out of bed, got dressed, and got herself ready to face a brand-new day.
Soon after, Coon started posting the hard-won BP documents on a Web site called texascityexplosion.com, with an easy link to his own firm and videotaped explanations of the issues courtesy of, well, him. After a little downtime, his band played with ZZ Top in Beaumont on Easter weekend of 2007. Coon is fighting to take Lord Browne’s deposition, despite his departure from the company, and still has about two hundred clients with injury cases and other grievances left to settle.
Eva is more ambivalent about their success. By early spring, she was ready for a rest—“I haven’t really had time to grieve,” she told me—but is happy to have brought about some change. Sometimes she talks about going back to school, maybe for a law degree; other times she begs to be nothing more than a normal 22-year-old. She isn’t a person desperate for public adulation. “You don’t know how good I’ve had to be,” she told me wearily. On Easter weekend, she snuck into Hornbeck late at night to visit her parents’ graves but was gone before sunrise. There was a shiny new padlock on the trailer that was once her home, and the grass was high in the yard, though some deep-purple gladioluses were in bloom.
Eva’s voice is sweeter now, and some of the hardness has left her face. In early May I asked her if she ever thinks about what her life would have been like if there had been no explosion, and no fight, and no millions. “Oh, wow,” she said. “I think about that a lot, but I can’t paint a picture of it. I probably would have never left my mom, because she was my best friend.” She thought about her answer for just a minute more and then added, “I never had any idea of what I would have been or what I wanted.”