Texas fertiliser plant blast: Once upon a time in West - the town that was blown apart

The devastating explosion at the fertiliser plant on Wednesday touched the lives of everyone in this small, tight-knit Texas town, reports Tim Walker in West
  • @timwalker

Broken glass still littered the street outside the Old Corner Drug Store in West on Friday morning. Inside, the staff huddled tearfully: their boss is a volunteer firefighter, one said, and had lost close friends in the explosion at a local fertiliser company that rocked the town on Wednesday night. The blast has so far claimed 12 confirmed victims, with further deaths feared, but it has touched the lives of everyone in this small Texas community of 2,800.

Among the bodies recovered from the scene were those of six firefighters and four emergency medical workers. The first named victim was 52-year-old Captain Kenneth Harris of the Dallas Fire Department, a West resident who raced to the scene to assist local volunteers, despite being off-duty. Some 200 people were injured by the blast, which devastated a neighbourhood amounting to approximately one-fifth of the town, which straddles Interstate-35 around 20 miles north of Waco.

Susan Reams, 38, rushed home to West on Wednesday night after hearing about the disaster. Two of her brothers are volunteer firefighters, and had responded to reports of a fire at Adair Grain’s West Fertiliser Co early on Wednesday evening. One of them was still at the scene at about 8pm, as the blaze became a fireball, causing a shockwave equivalent to a small earthquake and sending a mushroom cloud into the evening sky. Remarkably, he survived.

Meanwhile, Reams’ sister’s antique store had its windows blown out by the blast, and her mother’s home is thought to have been destroyed – though she is yet to be allowed back into the blast zone to survey the damage. “It’s a very small town. Everybody pretty much knows everybody, or is related to them, or is married to somebody that’s related to them,” Reams told The Independent. “Both my brothers know everyone who was at the scene, who was accounted for and who was not.”

Gustavo Chavez, 23, who works behind the counter at the town’s celebrated Czech Stop Bakery, said one of his father’s cousins was still unaccounted for. “He lived in an apartment right behind the plant, and his car and his cellphone were found at the scene,” said Chavez, who was on the way to his aunt’s home near the plant when he first noticed the flames shortly before dusk on Wednesday. “We were trying to get close when it exploded. The car just shook like something heavy had landed on it. All the north-facing windows in my aunt’s house were blown out.”

The Czech Stop was still doing a roaring trade in its signature kolache buns yesterday, and had started a collection bucket to help those affected by the disaster. Many of the region’s inhabitants are descended from the Czechs and Germans who settled here at the end of the 19th century; among those visiting West to offer their condolences was the Czech ambassador to the US, Petr Gandalovic, whose country even maintains an honorary consulate in the town.

As the search and rescue operation continued, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives scoured the scene for clues to the cause of the blast, which officials said had destroyed about 50 homes. A recent report submitted to the Texas Department of State Health Services suggested the facility contained a stockpile of up to 270 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and 100,000lb of liquid ammonia.

The reasons for the explosion may yet remain unclear, but questions are nevertheless being asked of the state and federal environmental agencies who previously assessed the facility, and continued to allow such large amounts of volatile chemicals to be stored so close to a residential area that included a school and a nursing home. In 2006, the plant was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit, after the agency received a complaint of a strong smell of ammonia.

The disaster has echoes of the deadliest industrial accident in the history of the state and, indeed, the US: in 1947, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded on board a ship in the Port of Texas, near Houston, causing widespread fires that eventually killed almost 600 people. Just one member of the Texas City fire department survived. Ammonium nitrate was also the key ingredient in the bomb used by Timothy McVeigh to claim the lives of 168 people in Oklahoma City, 18 years ago yesterday.

Tyler Littlejohn and his friend Zane Ward, both 17, were playing basketball at the courts beside West Fertiliser when the fire began, and said they knew the facility contained dangerous chemicals. “I know people who said it was a ticking time-bomb years ago,” said Littlejohn. “They were just waiting for it to blow.”

Both boys were running away from the blaze when the facility blew up. The shockwave threw Ward to the ground. When he looked up, he said, “I saw [local concert venue] the Lone Star Hall collapsing in on itself. I couldn’t hear anything; my ears were ringing. There were people screaming and crying, blood on their faces. Women running away carrying their babies. It all happened so fast.” Ward’s own home had collapsed, too. His family have gone to stay in Waco, he said, but he and Littlejohn decided to stay and help with the recovery effort.

They are far from the only ones. Emergency services personnel have descended on West from across central Texas. People whose homes were unaffected have offered lodging to those that lost everything. Churches have thrown open their doors; people have donated blood; stores have given clothing and food.

Another regular visitor to the area, country music star Willie Nelson, announced that he intends to stage a benefit concert on behalf of the town’s volunteer fire department in Austin on 28 April. Nelson, who was born in Abbott, some five miles from the blast site, tweeted: “West has been in my backyard all my life. My heart is praying for the community that we call home.”