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.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

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

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