Much of West, Texas in ruins after fertilizer-plant disaster

Tony Gutierrez

A Dallas Regional Urban Search and Rescue Truck sits parked by a destroyed apartment complex with emergency responders working the scene after it was destroyed by an explosion at a nearby fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on Thursday. A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight. The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. Wednesday, sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.

WEST, Texas — Rescue crews spent Thursday searching for victims in the smoldering ruins of a liquid fertilizer depot and dozens of destroyed homes after an explosion caused an unknown number of deaths and injured more than 160 people.

Authorities early in the day estimated that five to 15 people had been killed. But later, they declined to specify the number of people missing or dead.

A fire at the West Fertilizer Co. appears to have ruptured high-pressure storage tanks full of liquid ammonia, which caused the huge blast. Several firefighters were missing.

"Last night was truly a nightmare scenario in that community," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday, adding, "This tragedy has most likely hit every family."

West, with 2,800 residents, is a flat farming community 20 miles from Waco, just off an interstate highway, with a smattering of antique shops and locally owned diners. It plays up its Czech heritage, and like many rural towns, it has a demographic profile tilting to the elderly.

A day after the explosion, a large swath of the town was blocked to the public as emergency personnel continued to search for victims, picking through the rubble of collapsed homes and the flattened facility. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the town's community center, which provided displaced families with basic supplies.

Officials said there was no indication the fire was anything other than an accident, but they said they were examining all possibilities.

"We are not ruling anything out," said Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton, a police spokesman.

Mayor Tommy Muska said 50 to 60 homes within a five-block radius of the storage depot were heavily damaged. West Rest Haven Nursing Home was being evacuated at the time of the blast because of its closeness to the fire. Its residents were all brought to a safe location, the mayor said.

Muska, who is also a firefighter, told reporters that he was heading toward the fire when the thundering explosion occurred. "It blew my hat off," he said, looking startled. "It blew the rearview mirror off my truck. It was a very powerful explosion."

Authorities were struggling Thursday to get a clear sense of the damage in West, in part because the explosion disrupted power and cellphone service to parts of the area.

"We're going house to house, business to business," Swanton said at a news briefing. "I think we're going to see fatalities increase." The explosion, he said, "reached blocks, if not miles, in its devastating effect. There are homes leveled. There are businesses leveled."

The explosion "was massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma," D.L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters, referring to the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The federal government's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial disasters, were sending teams.

The cause of the fire is unknown. Courtney Adair, 20, a great-niece of the owner of the fertilizer distributor, said the family is in shock. "They don't know what to think or what's going to happen," she said. She said the family can't fathom that anyone would have set the blaze on purpose.

"Honestly, I think this was an accident," she said.

Wendy Maler, 37, who lives 750 feet from the facility, said her husband, a volunteer firefighter, urged her and their children to evacuate as the fire started spreading. Barely five minutes after reaching her mother-in-law's house down the road, the ground shook as a ball of fire shot into the sky.

"We just grabbed the kids and hit the ground," she said.

Her 47-year-old husband, David, was injured fighting the fire. Their house was ruined — windows blown out, drywall crumbled, doors caved in.

"We were able to go into the house and get our wedding rings, but that was it," she said.

Perry told reporters he was declaring McLennan County a disaster area. He said President Barack Obama called him Thursday morning from Air Force One en route to Boston, where the president was headed to attend a prayer service for victims of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.

In a statement issued by the White House, Obama offered whatever federal assistance is needed "to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue." The president added that "our prayers go out to the people of West" and that "good, hard-working people have lost their lives."

Anhydrous ammonia has been used as a fertilizer since the 1940s and accounts for roughly one-third of the fertilizer used in the United States. It is injected into the ground in liquid form. White cylinders containing the compound are a common feature of the rural American landscape.

Anhydrous ammonia burns, although not easily. However, if a storage cylinder melts in a fire and releases its contents, which then burns, the result can be catastrophic. The hazards of ammonia-filled tanks are well-known to firefighters.

The federal government requires risk management plans — which outline how a facility reduces the chances of an accidental leak of extremely hazardous material and how it would respond to any hazardous release — for plants and facilities with significant amounts of dangerous chemicals.

West Fertilizer did not make anhydrous ammonia. It stored and sold it. There are about 6,000 distributors like it around the country, said Kathy Mathers, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, which represents the industry.

After an inspection in September 2011, the federal government fined the company $10,100 for safety violations that included offering for sale and transport anhydrous ammonia "while failing to develop and adhere to a security plan," according to documents from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The company showed it had properly labeled its cargo trucks, according to the documents, and also provided a cover page and table of contents for "their new security plan," although that plan is not listed. The government then reduced the penalty to $5,250.

The Environmental Protection Agency fined West Fertilizer Co. $2,300 in 2006 for having a deficient risk management plan, according to the agency.

The EPA "found a number of deficiencies" with the retail facility during its March 16, 2006, inspection, said EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson. They included a failure to update the plan, which was due two years earlier; a failure to address the hazards identified in the company's safety review; poor employee training records; and the lack of a formal written maintenance program.

In the case of West Fertilizer, Johnson wrote in an e-mail, the facility fell under the requirement because "the quantity of ammonia on-site exceeds 10,000 lbs." She added that the company "has not had a major accident in the last five-years."

The same year that the EPA fined the facility, state regulators investigated and cited it after receiving complaints about its ammonia emissions, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

"Ammonia Smell very bad last night from Fertilizer Plant, lingered until after they went to bed," reads the June 6, 2006, report.

A nearby elementary school was evacuated in February because of a fire at the plant, according to a memo that the local school superintendent, Marty Crawford, sent to staff and parents.

Crawford wrote that the 911 dispatcher "did not acknowledge" that the retail facility "was carrying out a controlled burn of pallets and brush" and that "the district has asked emergency service providers for advanced notification in the future when the plant decided to conduct a burn."

The memo did not say how the school, which serves fourth- and fifth-graders, learned or confirmed that the facility had been carrying out a "coordinated burn."

The explosion came on a grim anniversary for the Waco area. Twenty years ago this week, 76 members of the fringe Branch Davidians religious group were killed after setting fire to their building when federal agents attempted to serve a search warrant.

Associated Press

This video image provided by WFAA-TV shows injured people being treated on the flood-lit the high school football field turned into a staging area after the blast in West Texas Wednesday April 17, 2013. (AP Photo/WFAA-TV)

Plant Explosion Texas
Associated Press

A firefighter pauses while surveying the blast zone destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant during search and rescue efforts in West, Texas, on Thursday. A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight.

Associated Press

A person looks on as emergency workers fight a house fire after a nearby fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. A massive explosion at the fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday night injured dozens of people and sent flames shooting into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following a blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte)

Associated Press

Baylor University student's hold a candle light vigil outside Waco Hall for the victim's of the West fertilizer plant explosion, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Jerry Larson)

Associated Press

A victim from the West fertilizer plant explosion is wheeled into Hillcrest Baptist Medical Hospital in Waco, Texas, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Jerry Larson)

Associated Press

An unidentified man injured by the West fertilizer plant explosion is treated by nurses from Hillcrest Baptist Medical Hospital in Waco, Texas, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Jerry Larson)

Associated Press

A fire still burns in a apartment complex destroyed near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early Thursday morning, April 18, 2013. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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Comments

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Sorry Texas, ask your State of Texas to pay for its ignorance

Ted Cruz, Bill Flores Asked For Federal Aid After Texas Explosion, But Voted Against Sandy Relief?????????????????

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lambasted the Sandy Aid package, voting against the measure in January. Cruz issued a statement explaining that he voted against the aid because it included a number of spending measures that were not related to disaster relief, including "Smithsonian repairs, upgrades to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration airplanes, and more funding for Head Start."

However, in Washington Thursday, Cruz said that he was "working to ensure that all available resources are marshaled to deal with the horrific loss of life and suffering that we've seen" after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas leveled the plant and nearby houses and business, claiming the lives of at least a dozen people and injuring hundreds more.

FEMA has reportedly been in close contact with officials in Texas to organize aid, relief and support to the West area.

Rep. Bill Flores, who represents West, also voted against the Sandy relief package but is now requesting federal aid for the disaster in his home district. Flores said Thursday that members of Congress with whom he has been in touch have pledged assistance.

After Flores voted against the Sandy aid package, he justified his vote by saying the package was "too large" and did "more than meet the immediate needs of Sandy victims."

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Factory should be sued big time....

West Fertilizer; Told the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities that the factory presented no risk of explosion.

The company wrote that there was “no” risk of fire or explosion on a required emergency planning report, according to a review of the documents by the Dallas Morning News.

In the report, the company said it had up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia -- a gas with suffocating fumes that can explode if it’s lit at very high temperatures -- on hand, but indicated that the worst-case scenario that could take place would be a 10-minute release of the gas that would not result in any injuries or deaths.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/18/west-fertilizer-co-epa_n_311005...

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Siting an Ammonia fertilizer plant in a residential area

is a criminal act. And no one in Texas can say they didn't know. In 1945 a ship carrying ammonia nitrate fertilizer exploded at its berth in Texas City and all but destroyed the city killing 500 or more.
That's why Mainers should be pleased that DCP's proposed 23 million gallon LPG tank project was defeated in Searsport last week. Sooner or later the tank or the ships carrying the LPG would have left a permanent scar on Maine's coast.
Soon, after the dead are buried, I hope an investigation will identify the people responsible for the West, Texas disaster.

David  Cote's picture

You're right, Jonathan...

It's eerie how this disaster compares to the Grandcamp explosion in Texas City. That blast was so powerful it knocked two small airplanes from the sky from a mile or so away. And you're absolutely correct questioning why a facility that houses ammonia nitrate in mass quantities is allowed anywhere near a residential area. For crying out loud, Texas is huge. They could have found an location that is miles from any neighborhood to build this place. The problem is this explosion was so violent that garnering evidence leading to its cause may be fruitless. Let us hope that's not the case.

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Thanks

Always appreciate a sound, rational comment

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

It's Texas, with Mr. Oops...

The no union, no OSHA regs followed or enforced, lowest educated state in the nation.

The Associated Press reported early Thursday morning that the Texas fertilizer plant in which the massive explosion took place Wednesday was cited in 2006 for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit.

Says Texas ranks 44th nationally in education funding per pupil.
Texas is on track to create a generation of citizens saddled with high health care costs, increasing poverty rates and an inability to compete for jobs on a national level, according to a report released recently.

The Lone Star State ranks last in providing health care coverage, mental health services for those with diagnosed challenges, in preventing childhood homelessness and in preventing food insecurity.

Texas Maintains Highest Number of Uninsured,
In Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, more residents (about 25%) are without health insurance than any other state in the nation so far in 2010.

Read more: Medical care, education for children ranks among lowest in nation, report says - Mywesttexas.com: Top Stories http://www.mywesttexas.com/top_stories/article_bbedabed-da2d-5b8e-81db-2...
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Eric  LeBlanc's picture

Much of that can be

Much of that can be attributed to the high cost of illegal immigration

Jonathan Albrecht's picture

Sorry, that's a canard.

The Heritage Center did a study on he "costs" of illegal imigrantion some years ago. Not a costs/benefit study. In truth, undocumented immigrants provide "cheap" labor (large profits for corporations meaning higher incomes for a few Texans and more investment than would otherwise be possible) and taxes. Critics of the study found that undocumented immigrants provide benefits at least three times greater than their "costs".

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