Fertilizer facility explosion in Texas

April 18, 2013

A raging fire triggered a massive explosion at a fertilizer retail outlet in West, Tex., on Wednesday night. Initial reports count 160 people wounded and five to 15 dead. The immediate neighborhood around the site of the explosion was evacuated, and rescuers were sweeping through the area, house to house, looking for people.

Follow below for the developments through Thursday evening.

West Fertilizer owner’s relative speaks

Courtney Adair, 20, a great-niece of the owner of the facility said the family is in shock.

“They don’t know what to think or what’s going to happen,” she said in an interview.

Adair said the family can’t fathom that anyone would have set the blaze on purpose, saying her great uncle has no enemies.

“Honestly, I think this was an accident,” she said. “West is a small country town.”

‘All I’ve got is the clothes I have on’

The day after a deadly explosion shook and scarred the small town of West, Tex., residents are trying to make sense of what happened: recalling their fear, noting the generosity of those offering help and coping with the wreckage left behind.

Bill Manolakis:to the Dallas Morning News: “That whole side of town looks like a disaster. Who in their right mind sticks a damn plant next to houses?”

In an interview with the Waco Tribune, Linda Goelzer, public relations director of Carter BloodCare, said she wasn’t surprised by the day’s strong turnout for blood donations.

“Central Texas is one of those points in our territory where when something happens, people show up,” Goelzer said.

The Tribune also interviewed longtime West Justice of the Peace David Pareya, whose home is close to the explosion site and was heavily damaged.

“All I’ve got is the clothes I have on and what’s in my pockets,” Pareya said. “I haven’t even changed clothes.”

In an interview with local news station KXXV, an unidentified man recounted how he tried to save another man from the wreckage shortly after the explosion:

“I got really close to him, within 10 feet, and I said: ‘I’m coming. It’s okay. Hang in there.’ But right when I pulled a board, the roof collapsed on me. It done some damage.”

‘It was a disaster’

When West Fertilizer caught fire, Tedd Uptmore, the longtime sales manager, jumped in his vehicle and started heading to the retail facility. But police stopped the 80-year-old before he got there.

“That probably saved his life,” said his son, John.

The son heard the explosion later at his house four miles outside West. He rushed to the scene and saw the destruction. “It’s flat now,” John Uptmore said in a telephone interview. He made his way through heavy dark smoke to help evacuate elderly residents from a nursing home.

“I helped move them to the community center. It was a disaster. There was a lot of glass. People had abrasions all over from the glass.”

Uptmore said he stayed about three hours, past 10 p.m., until officials told him that enough professionals had arrived to help. On the phone, Uptmore’s voice started to crack. He had visited the shop in the past, but he declined to describe its contents or how it looked then.

He said his father wouldn’t comment. “He’s not talking. He can’t. He’s devastated. The owner has to make that statement.”

The ground shook. A ball of fire shot up.

Residents of rural West, Tex., which takes pride in its Czech roots, were dazed Thursday as the extent of the damage from an explosion at a fertilizer facility the night before started to become clear.

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

“We just grabbed the kids and hit the ground,” she said. David Maler, 47, was wounded as he tried to help put out the fire.

Their home was wrecked, Maler said. Windows were blown out, the sheetrock had crumbled and the doors had caved in.

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

Critics slam West’s zoning rules


Google Maps

Last night’s tragic explosion at a fertilizer retail facility in West, Tex., is already causing fury among critics who say that changes in zoning laws could have limited the scope of the disaster.

The back part of the facility, which the Dallas Morning News reported held up to 54,000 pounds of dangerous chemicals, bordered tennis courts and a public school. The school’s football field, a large apartment complex and dozens of single-family homes also sat near the facility.

One local man commenting on Google+ said the playground is so close to West Fertilizer that he and his brother played in the shadow of “tanks and silos” as kids.

That, columnist Tod Robberson wrote in the Dallas Morning News, should make every town rethink its zoning rules.

“… Sometime soon, the state and federal governments will have to mandate a review of these decisions and others like them across rural America and take corrective action. We cannot have people living and going to school next to sub-nuclear time bombs.”

Erik Loomis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Rhode Island, slammed state zoning policy: “Yes, that’s right, a fertilizer plant was placed in a neighborhood,” he wrote in a blog post, adding: “a state with notoriously bad zoning and where capitalists are effectively allowed to do whatever they want is going to be a state where terrible things happen.”

(Though Loomis called West Fertilizer a fertilizer plant, it is actually a retail facility that sells fertilizer directly to farmers.)

As Loomis noted and The Post reported, the school was evacuated in February because of a fire at the facility.

More than a dozen state agencies deployed

The Texas Department of Public Safety’s situation report on the blasts at the fertilizer facility reveals the scale of the emergency response effort — and the immensity of the clean-up to come.

The document lists more than a dozen state agencies mobilized in response to the explosions, including a hazmat team, a communications group working on cell capability and a team from the Animal Health Commission to handle deceased pets. Read the full report below.

Texas Department of Public Safety situation report on West, Texas

Residents react: ‘I may not have my home … but I have my family’

While the search for victims continues in West, many are turning to the next task: rebuilding. On Twitter, residents of the small town and the surrounding area mourned the damage to homes and businesses and thanked strangers for their support.

 

 

Jackson Kucera, who lives near the site of the blast at the fertilizer facility, tweeted:

 

Stacy Webre, a graduate student at Texas Southern, also said her house was destroyed in the blast.

 


Now, the town turns to recovery.

 

 

Mobilizing housing with Google Doc

Sarah Evans of Las Vegas was following news about the blast in West, Tex., on Wednesday night when she noticed that some commenters on Facebook and in news articles were offering housing assistance to those displaced.

That generosity gave her an idea about how she could help: by creating a centralized place for offering and getting such assistance. So, Evans created a Google doc and associated form to help coordinate volunteers and requests. She said she’s trying to get word out about the spreadsheet to local media and the Red Cross, who she hopes will take ownership of the form she started to give it wider reach.

Evans said she has counted about 250 offers of assistance but that so far none has been marked as “accepted” on the spreadsheet. She also cautioned that people should “do due dilligence” when offering and accepting help through the spreadsheet.

Gov. Perry: Pray for those affected

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday afternoon that the deadly explosion at a fertilizer outlet in West, Tex., “has mostly likely hit every family” in the community and called on the country to pray for those affected.

Speaking during a press conference in Austin, the governor said: “It’s touched practically everyone in that town, so I ask all Texans and Americans to join me and Anita in keeping them in our prayers, and our first responders who may in some cases still be in harm’s way as they work through their search and rescue operation.”

Perry said that he had spoken to President Obama by phone and had requested a federal emergency declaration for McLennan County, which includes West and Waco.

The governor also said that the American Red Cross is coordinating information about people missing in the explosion. Anyone looking for information can dial 211.

Zak Covar, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told reporters that the site of the explosion was being monitored for contamination and that no health risks had been detected.

School was evacuated in February

A public elementary school near the West Fertilizer facility that exploded Thursday had been evacuated  back in February because of a fire at the plant, as school superintendent Marty Crawford wrote in a memo to staff and parents at West Intermediate School. Crawford said in the memo 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.” His full memo is below.

This morning, West Intermediate School was evacuated temporarily because of a concerning fire from the fertilizer plant located near the school. The evacuation was executed in calm, but serious fashion, where students and staff eventually gathered at West Middle School for 30 minutes or so. The District and WIS were not notified ahead of time that the fertilizer plant was carrying out a controlled burn of pallets and brush.

WIS principal Rob Fleming alerted 911 of the fire, whose dispatcher did not acknowledge a coordinated burn. Mr. Fleming immediately initiated the evacuation procedure and Kevin Maler, West ISD’s Transportation Fleet Specialist, along with drivers plucked from campuses, safely coordinated and transported the WIS students to WMS. Students seriously followed directives during the evacuation and teachers and campus support staff were exceptionally professional in supervising and leading the children throughout the departure.

The District has asked emergency service providers for advanced notification in the future when the plant decides to conduct a burn. The District is also requesting the plant provide prior notification as well. The safety of our students and staff is a priority of the West Independent School District. We hope you understand our urgency in evacuating West Intermediate School temporarily this morning and we wanted to champion the effort of our WIS/WISD staff and students who were involved in the procedure this morning.

 

Facility owner’s son speaks

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram spoke with Gary Adair, who said he is the son of the fertilizer company’s owner. Adair said the facility was closed at the time of the explosion and that his father was too upset to speak with reporters. From the Star-Telegram:

Adair said his father, Donald Adair, has owned the grain and fertilizer distribution plant for about 7 or 8 years. About a dozen employees work there, including a volunteer firefighter, he said.

The plant closes at five so no employees were present when the fire broke out. He said no machinery is left on, leaving him stumped at what may have caused the initial blaze.

“You just don’t know,” he said. “They may never know.”

Adair said he rushed to the plant, getting as close as possible. The plant, he said, had obviously been leveled…

He said he is with his father, who was too distraught to talk.

The explosion explained

Brad Plumer at The Post’s Wonkblog out together an explainer on the explosion at the West facility and on the fertilizer industry in general. A quick excerpt:

How common are explosions?

Based on data from the Guardian, there have been at least 17 unintended explosions of ammonium nitrate since 1921 that have led to casualties. Six of those have occurred in the United States.

The largest and deadliest occurred in 1947, when a fire on board a vessel docked in the Port of Texas City detonated some 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. All told, 581 people died — including most of Texas City’s fire department. It still ranks as the deadliest industrial accident the country has ever seen.

Wait, why do we use ammonium nitrate if it’s so deadly?

Brendan Koerner actually answered this exact question for Slate in 2005. Mainly, it’s far too convenient to ignore: “[A]mmonium nitrate is in many ways one of the best (and certainly one of the cheapest) sources of crop-nourishing nitrogen available. For starters, ammonium nitrate is inexpensive to manufacture. … Ammonium nitrate is also well-suited to bolstering certain types of crops. It’s quite effective with fruit trees, for example, providing more efficient nitrogen delivery than ammonium sulfate.”

It’s also worth noting that ammonia is fairly hard to ignite — temperatures need to reach 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one reason why explosions are (relatively) rare.

Read Plummer’s full post here.

Watch: Gov. Rick Perry’s news conference

View more videos at: http://nbcdfw.com.

Police: Up to 15 dead, up to 5 firefighters missing

Five to 15 people died in the West, Tex., explosion, and up to five firefighters are still missing, Waco Police Sgt W. Patrick Swanton said Thursday.

Swanton told reporters at a morning news conference that at least 160 people are injured and that he expects that number to rise. He cautioned that the figures of those missing, killed, and injured were not firm and could change.

Swanton said there is no lingering environmental threat from the explosion. He also reiterated that while police are treating the site as a crime scene, “there is no indication of crime at this point that I’m aware of.”

Damage to homes nearby range from damaged windows to the “severe destruction” of an apartment house.

Representatives from the company that runs the retail facility have been involved in the response, according to Swanton. “They have been instrumental in telling ground crews what sorts of threats they may face while they are there.”

Man who shot video describes blast

Derrick Hurtt, the man who shot the dramatic video that captured the moment of explosion at the West facility, was interviewed on the “Today” show Thursday morning.

Asked to describe the scene, Hurtt said, “There was probably double-digit people standing in front of me videoing that were closer than I was, and after the blast, they were nowhere to be seen.”

When asked about his well-being and that of daughter (who can be heard in the video saying, “Dad, I can’t hear”), Hurtt said they were doing well but that their “inner ears are a little sore.”

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Looting reported in wake of explosion

A “small amount of looting” broke after Wednesday night’s explosion at a fertilizer retail outlet in West, Tex., Waco Police Department Sgt. William Swanton told reporters.

According to ABC, looting remains “a significant concern” to law enforcement but that a heightened police presence makes further trouble unlikely. A local NBC affiliate, citing unnamed officials, tweeted that the looting was an “isolated incident” and “not random.”

About half of this town’s 2,800 residents were evacuated after the explosion, the NBC affiliate said.

Facility cited for air violations in 2006

State regulators investigated and cited the West, Tex., fertilizer outlet that exploded Wednesday night in 2006 after receiving complaints about its ammonia emissions, according to documents posted online by 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.

The documents indicate the Waco Regional Office Air Program received the complaint, which “was assigned to be investigated,” but the final report is not available.

The commission resolved the case Dec. 21, 2006, noting that it cited the facility for “failure to obtain a permit or qualify for a permit by rule.”

Where is West, Texas?

The town of West is about 20 miles north of Waco, Tex., in McLennan County.

Audio from dispatch call

A user of the audio sharing site SoundCloud put the emergency dispatch call to the West, Tex., fire department online after capturing it on broadcastify.com. Listen by hitting play below:

The moment of explosion

A man stopped to record the raging fire at the fertilizer retail outlet and captured the moment of explosion. Here is a slowed-down look (gif) at the explosion itself:

Relief efforts

Relief efforts have already begun in Texas:

The Waco Tribune has collected a number of links for local residents who may be affected by the blasts that includes a series of Google docs to match up those able to offer aid with those in need.

The Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate has rounded up contact information for local hospitals and shelters here.

Nearby Baylor University has set up a page for relief efforts here.

Donations are also being accepted at the DFW Salvation Army here.

 

Obama vows prompt response

President Obama issued a statement Thursday expressing his sympathy for the victims of the explosion at the fertilizer retail outlet in West, Tex., and vowed to provide federal support for the response.

“Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas, in the aftermath of last night’s deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant,” Obama said. “A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives.”

In addition to thanking “the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded,” the president said key federal agencies would help cope with the accident’s aftermath.

“My administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue,” he said. “West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people.”

Statements from Texas senators

Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn released the following joint statement:

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the horrific explosion in West, Texas. We grieve for those who are injured and have lost loved ones, and are grateful to the firefighters and first responders who risked their own lives to keep others safe. Today we ask all Texans to keep West in their thoughts and prayers. We remain in communication with Gov. Perry’s office and emergency management officials, and stand to offer whatever support we can.”

Damage report: homes, businesses, cars

Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said in his latest press conference that damage from the blast included 50 to 75 homes, numerous businesses, one apartment complex and vehicles. Some homes were “leveled,” others “just had windows blown out.”

Facility was cited over permit in 2006

The Associated Press reports:

The Texas fertilizer plant where an explosion injured more than 100 people and killed an unknown number of others was cited for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit in 2006.

 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint June 9 of a strong ammonia smell. Agency records show that the person who lodged the complaint said the ammonia smell was “very bad last night” and lingered until after he or she went to bed.

First responders still missing

In a press conference this morning, Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department estimated that five to 15 people been killed in the blast. That number may or may not include an estimated three to four firefighters specifically unaccounted for. Swanton made clear it was a rough estimate with “very little intel.” Most firefighters that responded were volunteer firefighters.

Sgt. Swanton noted that responders were still in search and rescue mode and have not moved on to recovery mode.

USGS: 2.1 magnitude explosion

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded the explosion at the fertilizer retail outlet as a 2.1 magnitude explosion, using the Richter Scale that measures the amount of energy released by earthquakes. The USGS also offers the following caveat on their Web site:

The magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event.

 

Up to 60 homes ‘heavily damaged’

The immediate area around the fertilizer shop in West, Tex., suffered very heavy damage. As The Washington Post’s Debbi Wilgoren and Ernesto Londono reported this morning:

West Mayor Tommy Muska said 50 to 60 homes within a five block radius of the factory were heavily damaged. West Rest Haven Nursing Home was being evacuated at the time of the blast because of the facility’s proximity to the fire; its residents have all been brought to a safe location, Muska said.

The neighborhood around the plant has been evacuated, but rescue workers are searching house to house, looking for people who may have been injured, killed or trapped in the debris, Swanton said. The scores of people taken to area hospitals for treatment had injuries ranging from minor to critical, hospital officials said.

Blast caught on cellphone camera

The Associated Press obtained video from a witness who was filming the raging fire at the fertilizer retail facility right before the explosion.

Father, daughter catch Texas explosion on phone video

This cellphone video of the fertilizer facility explosion was taken by a father and daughter who were watching from their car window the plant fire prior to the blast.

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