When firetrucks blew through the small town of West, Texas, on the evening of April 17, 2013, sirens screaming, naturally everybody was curious. People got in their cars and went to see the fire at the West fertilizer plant. For 10 minutes, they watched from cars and backyards as the fire grew ever bigger. A few moved as close as they could because they were filming on their smartphones. At no time did it occur to anybody that they might be in danger.
And then — a massive explosion. The men fighting the fire at the plant never had a chance. They were among 15 people killed in the blast, which also injured more than 160, annihilated a middle school and an apartment complex, destroyed a nursing home and caused $100 million in damage to the surrounding residential neighborhoods.
In the year since the explosion here, West has been steadily rebuilding roads, homes and buildings. The widespread destruction in the town has raised questions about what, if any, new state laws should be passed to ensure that another chemical plant doesn't explode where people live.
A Town Rebuilds
The night of the blast, Terry Meyer and his wife were watching the fire from the parking lot of the middle school. When the plant blew, they could see the shock wave knock people flat and then crush the school's roof.
"We were sitting there looking at it," he explains. "Kind of looked like radiation, like a war game. ... I never want to see anything like that again."
When the shock wave hit their home, just behind the middle school, it landed like a sledgehammer.
"Blew out windows, it blew out doors — we had solid doors, and it just splintered them like cops kicked in your door," Meyer says. "We had 26 broken rafters. That house is completely condemned."
Now that the source of the original destruction is gone, there's no hesitation to rebuild here. The sound of new construction surrounds the empty meadow that once was home to the West fertilizer plant. New homes are going up to replace those that were completely destroyed, and there's a replacement for the middle school, and a new nursing home.
"It's been a roller coaster," says Tommy Muska, mayor of West. "We started with the explosion, and diligently we've fixed the problems. We brought back water supply, we brought back utilities. We are bringing back streets. We've got about 63 [new] homes right now being built."
This is rural Texas, a predominantly Republican, conservative Czech community famous for its lusciously delicious kolache pastries.
The West Fertilizer Co. was owned by Don Adair, 83, and his wife, Wanda, fixtures in West all their lives. Muska says the Adairs know the families who lost loved ones.
"I don't feel any animosity towards him. I know him. He's a wonderful person; his wife is too," the mayor says. "He was blindsided with this and has just as much guilt on his shoulders as anyone in this town. He's still struggling with the fact that it was his plant that killed 13 firefighters."
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, any suggestion that the volunteers were in any way lacking in firefighting knowledge was met with real hostility.
But the truth was, the men had never been trained to deal with this kind of fire. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma using 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer plant in West had about 540,000 pounds of explosive ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins.
Those last 12 minutes of the firefighters' lives should have been spent getting everyone, themselves included, at least a mile back. In fact, a Dallas firefighter with 31 years of experience almost saved them. Capt. Kenny Harris Jr., who commuted from West, was barbecuing with friends that day. After seeing the black smoke rising into the sky, Harris and a friend rushed to the West fertilizer plant.
Upon arrival, the well-trained professional immediately understood the situation was critical. He jumped out, told his friend to drive the pickup as far away as possible, and then ran to warn the firefighters. And Harris almost managed it — the volunteers listened, understood and were pulling back when the plant blew up. They all died instantly, including Harris.
Enough time has passed that Mayor Muska can talk about it, carefully. "They had 10 minutes to figure out what was going on, and it blew up," he says. "I don't think anybody could realize it would blow up that fast, that quick. They were the best of the best. Did they realize like anybody else that it was going to blow up? No."
Muska's view is widespread in West: that nobody can know the mind of God, and no rational person could have seen it coming — and therefore, nobody is really to blame. The explosion just happened. There's less emphasis on accountability and more on being supportive of the victims.
A Difficult Environment For Safety Proposals
On West's Main Street, Picha's Czech-American Restaurant is packed for lunch. The older men wear Western shirts and cowboy hats; the younger men are in T-shirts and cowboy boots. Like Muska, most here don't blame the fertilizer plant for what happened.
"Well, they were here first," restaurant cashier Michelle Pavlas, a West native, says of the plant. "We built around them."
So how do you regulate a plant that over the years was surrounded by growth? Well, in Texas, you don't. There is no one state agency that actually has oversight or regulatory power. Not only that, Texas has precious little knowledge about what is occurring inside its fertilizer and chemical plants.
Since the accident, several legislative proposals have been put forward for consideration when the part-time Legislature reconvenes next year. But Texas has one of the most conservative, anti-regulatory legislatures in the nation. Republican Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, says any proposal that would give the state a lot more regulatory authority just isn't going to fly.
"We need some," he says. "But if the answer in some people's minds is, OK, we need to have a statewide fire code which covers everything under the sun, or we have a proposal where someone says we need to give counties ordinance authority, I think we just hit a wall."
Pickett says what might have a chance of passing is legislation requiring better bookkeeping and reporting from the chemical plants, like a state website that would at least let people know what they're living next to.
"And that's just a start," he says, acknowledging that that kind of information is only so helpful. "I know that doesn't make it safe if I live in that [area]. Did you tell me in that website whether I'm safe or not? No."
'I Think We Can Do It'
Nevertheless, Pickett says the tragedy in West is the one opportunity the state's likely going to get to pass any kind of new safety regulations.
"I think if we keep the discussion on West and the disaster that it was, I think we can do it, yes."
As for the elected representatives of West, they too are conservative Republicans. But they have experienced a catastrophe that blew up part of their town. Muska, the mayor, says he's learned one thing.
"Sprinkler systems. If this plant would have had a sprinkler system, that small little fire that started ... would have been doused by a sprinkler system if it would have been in place," he says. "That [fire] would have never engulfed the building, it would have never ignited the ammonium nitrate — me and you would not even be talking right now."
Fifteen lives and $100 million in damage potentially saved by a sprinkler system. When asked whether the Legislature would consider a bill that would require chemical and fertilizer plants in Texas to have sprinkler systems, Pickett says that could have a chance of passing — but he's not sure.