Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

April 19, 2013

West fertilizer plant explosion kills 15, injures more than 160

Progress staff reports
Jacksonville Daily Progress

WEST — Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thurs-day for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris or bodies of the dead. The accident killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others.

Daylight revealed a breathtaking band of destruction extending for a four- to five-block radius around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small farming community located about 20 miles north of Waco. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and leveled homes, apartments, a school and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away.

Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.

Searchers “have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive,” Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.

There was no indication that the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. Morning exposed a landscape wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.

While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant's huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.

“It's still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The precise death toll was uncertain. Three to five volunteer firefighters were believed to be among the dead, which authorities said could number as many as 15. But that was merely an estimate.

Swanton said he would “never second-guess” firefighters' decision to enter the plant because “we risk our lives every day.”

The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been at a school playground near the plant when the explosion hit.

The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home, and the roof of the school rose into the sky.

“The fire was so high,” she said. “It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking.”

First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs. Many were dazed and panicked and did not know what happened.

William Burch and his wife, a retired Air Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first-responders arrived. They searched separate wings and found residents in wheelchairs trapped in their rooms. The halls were dark, and the ceilings had collapsed. Water filled the hallways. Electrical wires hung eerily from the ceilings.

“They had Sheetrock that was on top of them. You had to remove that,” Burch said. It was “completely chaotic.”

Gov. Rick Perry called the explosion “a truly nightmare scenario for the community” and said he had been in touch with President Barack Obama, who promised his administration's assistance with operations on the ground.

Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, he said, adding, “the hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen.

“That really happens almost instantaneously, and that's what gives the tremendous force of the explosion,” he said.

About a half-hour before the blast, the town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant, Swanton said.

They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of the plant's chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding area. The blast occured 20 minutes later.

An investigation team with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was being deployed to the site, as was an ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions.

American Red Cross crews also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.

Locally, the Lone Star Military Farm group and the Jacksonville Marine Corps League Detach-ment #1381 are heading up a drive Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Jacksonville Atwoods store for items to send to West.

“We just wanted to reach out to those in need,” said Lois Hutson, a farm support specialist and resource development team member. The group took up donations for residents of Bastrop two years ago when drought-induced fires ravaged the Hill County city, Hutson said, “and it's kind of grown from there.”

Suggested items run from bottled water toiletries, to baby formula, pacifiers and blankets, to household goods and personal hygiene products, among others.

“We're asking for stuff that most people that don't normally think of, things like tarps,” Hutson said. “Because (a homeowner) can use that tarp to help cover their roof while they wait for the insurance company to show up.”

A local trucking company has offered a truck and driver to transport goods, as well, Hutson said, “so if there are other organizations (collecting items) that need help taking donations there, we'll be happy to help.”

For a list of items requested for Saturday's drive, contact Hutson at 903-243-0487.

A Carter Blood Care mobile unit also will be present, accepting blood donations for the West tragedy.