Texas town mourns victims, including first responders after fertilizer depot blast

April 19, 2013

In this tiny town, the enormous loss caused by a massive fertilizer plant explosion was just starting to sink in on Friday, as talk about deaths and missing people was passed by word of mouth, drawing sighs, gasps and tears.

“It’s going to be tough for the families,” said Deborah Sulak, 51, a cashier at a small grocery store just around the corner from the fire station. “But we’re going to rebound. We’re fighters.”

At a late-afternoon news conference Friday, Mayor Tommy Muska confirmed that 14 bodies had been recovered, including those of five volunteer firefighters — one of whom was the city manager — and four emergency medical technicians. Most had rushed to West Fertilizer on Wednesday night when it erupted in a fireball, causing widespread damage. “It’s devastating,” Muska said. “I have been a member of the fire department for 26 years. These guys were my friends.”

A West firefighter said his colleagues acted bravely in an effort to contain the blaze while nearby residents were being evacuated. “It grew and it grew and they weren’t able to flee before the blast,” said Florentino Perez. “They were trying to connect the hose to the hydrant when it went boom.”

At the end of a week that has kept Americans on edge, following Monday’s bombings in Boston and ricin-laced letters mailed to members of Congress, there was something conspicuously absent here, in this town that takes great pride in its deep Czech roots: a search for a villain.

“You can’t really blame anyone,” Perez said. “Only God knows why this happened.”

The fertilizer plant had been on fire once before, nearly a decade ago, and the all-volunteer West Fire Department had managed to put it out before it spread to a nearby school and homes.

Perhaps with that in mind, a handful of the city’s firefighters rushed to the edge of the swelling flames Wednesday night and drained the water tank on one of their trucks. With the fire untamed, they started to connect a hose to the nearest fire hydrant when a gargantuan ball of fire shot into the sky in this rural farm town of 2,800 people, leveling dozens of homes and making the earth rattle for miles.

“This was a horrible accident, and we’re going to have to move on as a community,” Sulak said. “It’s going to be millions and millions of dollars and an awful loss of life.”

The first responders killed Wednesday night were hailed as heroes. Dallas Fire and Rescue Capt. Kenny Harris, 52, a resident of West, was among them, according to the City of Dallas. Harris was off-duty when the blaze began, but he rushed to help.

“Captain Harris rushed to the scene compelled to provide assistance to his community during a crisis,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a statement.

Chris Barron, the head of the Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas, said at least 20 of West’s 29 firefighters had advanced training that includes basic knowledge of responding to fires in areas that store “hazardous material.” He said even big-city fire departments struggle with such fires, noting that it presented an enormous challenge to the city’s tiny force.

“I don’t think any of us are ready for everything,” he said. “The thing about hazardous materials is there’s a lot of unknowns; there are unexplained behavior in chemicals when there’s a fire.”

The fertilizer responsible for the explosion appears to have been ammonium nitrate, which is a powdered solid, and not anhydrous ammonia, a liquid stored in high-pressure tanks.

On a reporting form required by federal law, West Fertilizer in February said it was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, among other substances.

“It appears that ammonium nitrate is definitely involved,” said Neal Langerman, whose San Diego firm, Advanced Chemical Safety, provides consulting services to chemical companies.

Both substances are explosive. However, ammonia requires both a chemical-to-air ratio that is hard to achieve and a much higher temperature than the ignition point of ammonium nitrate to explode.

“My understanding is that if anhydrous ammonia was the source of the problem, it would not have behaved in the manner that this did,” said Ken Willette, a former fire chief who is now an official of the National Fire Protection Association, a standards-setting organization in Quincy, Mass.

Ammonium nitrate is the main ingredient of “fertilizer bombs” like the one used to destroy the federal office building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. It has also been used in many car and truck bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The chief strategy in fires that threaten stores of ammonium nitrate is to put large quantities of water on the fertilizer. If that can’t be done quickly or if water is limited, firefighters are advised to withdraw to a safe distance. Sometimes that is as far away as a mile. Unmanned equipment can be left closer to spray water, or the fire can be left to run its course.

Since 1988, the federal government has required that companies and localities have specific plans for responding to emergencies involving hazardous chemicals. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Emergency Response Guide provides advice on response strategies and evacuation distances.

“The regulations are very mature,” Langerman said. “The level of knowledge and training in full-time versus volunteer fire department is approximately the same. I think the facts are going to show they did a pretty damn good job, but they were overwhelmed by the speed of the growth of the fire.”

Perez said veteran firefighters in the city knew the plant posed a risk and that they were instructed not to get close to fires involving hazardous chemicals unless there are civilians in harm’s way.

“If there’s no one to save, don’t get close,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been taught.”

There are no federal laws governing how close fertilizer depots can be to houses. Local planning boards make those decisions. Modern zoning generally prohibits such facilities from being built near residential neighborhoods.

Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, said about 6,000 fertilizer distributors like West Fertilizer are around the country.

“These places tend to be located as close as possible to their farmer customers,” she said. “In some instances, residential areas have been built up around those facilities. We don’t have a lot of new distributorships being built at this point,” she said.

The state’s two senators traveled to West on Friday to take stock of the damage. After touring the site where a residential complex was flattened and three firetrucks were charred, Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz looked pale as they spoke to reporters at a media center set up at the town’s cattle auction building.

The flags outside the town’s small fire station were at half-staff. Members of nearby fire departments came by to wash the two trucks that were not destroyed, in a gesture of solidarity.

With the town’s fire chief hospitalized, his son, George Nors Jr., became acting fire chief. He said on Friday that the department is grieving and struggling to figure out how to rebuild.“It’s important to have good volunteers who want to do this,” he said, speaking to reporters outside the station. “We’re all volunteers here.”

londonoe@washpost.com

browndm@washpost.com

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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