Latest Information:
Around the Nation
4:25 pm
Mon April 14, 2014

A 'Roller Coaster' Year For Texas Town Rocked By Blast

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 5:42 pm

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."

Insufficient Training

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

It was a year ago that 15 people died in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West in Texas. More than one hundred and sixty people were injured. The blast annihilated a middle school and an apartment complex and it caused $100 million in damage.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn revisited West, Texas, to find out what's changed and what hasn't since the disaster.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: When the fire trucks blew through West on that evening of April 17th, sirens screaming, naturally everybody was curious. So people got in their cars and went to see. For 10 minutes they watched as the fire at the West Fertilizer plant 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: God almighty Bill...

GOODWYN: The men fighting the fire at the plant never had a chance.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There are firefighters down at this time. Again, there has been an explosion on the fire scene there are firefighters down at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The rest home has been seriously damaged. We have many people down. Please respond.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm getting you everybody I can. You have deputies. You have Bellmead Fire. You have EMS. I'm sending everybody I got.

GOODWYN: Forty-eight-year-old Terry Meyer and his wife watched from the parking lot of the middle school. When the plant blew up, they could see the shockwaves knocking people flat and then crushing the middle school's roof.

TERRY MEYER: We were sitting there looking at it. We watched. It looked like kind of looked like radiation, like a war game, like a...

GOODWYN: Nuclear blast?

MEYER: Yeah. I would never want to see nothing like that again.

GOODWYN: When the shockwave hit their home, just behind the middle school, it landed like a sledgehammer.

MEYER: Blew out windows and blew out doors. We had solid doors and it just splintered them like cops kicked in your door. We had 26 broken rafters. That house is completely condemned.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

GOODWYN: One year later, the sound of new construction surrounds the empty meadow that once was home for the West Fertilizer Plant. New homes are going up to replace those that were completely destroyed. There's a replacement for the middle school and a new nursing home. Now that the source of the original destruction is gone there's no hesitation to rebuild.

Tommy Muska is that mayor of West.

MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA: Oh, it's been a rollercoaster. You know, we started with the explosion and, you know, diligently we've fixed the problems. We brought back water supply. We have brought back utilities. We are bringing back streets. You know, we've got 63 homes right now being built, that's new homes.

GOODWYN: The West Fertilizer Company is owned b y 83-year-old Don Adair and his wife Wanda, fixtures in West all their lives. Muska says the Adairs know the families who lost loved ones.

MUSKA: I don't feel any animosity towards him. I know him. He's a wonderful person. His wife is, too. You know, he was blindsided with this and has just as much guilt on his shoulders as anybody in this town. He's still, you know, struggling with the fact that it was his plant that killed 13 firefighters.

GOODWYN: In the immediate aftermath, any suggestion that the volunteer 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. Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma using 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate. The plant in West had 540,000 thousand pounds of explosive ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins.

In hindsight, those last 12 minutes of the firefighters' lives should have been spent getting everyone, themselves included, a mile back at least. But they bravely turned on their hoses and went to their quick and unnecessary deaths. Enough time has passed that Mayor Muska can talk about it, carefully.

MUSKA: They had 10 minutes to figure out what was going on and it blew up. I don't think anybody could realize it would blow up that fast, that quick. They were the best of the best. Now, did they realize like anybody else it was going to blow up? No.

GOODWYN: Muska's view is widespread in West, that is, nobody can know the mind of God. 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, more on being supportive of the victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN)

GOODWYN: This is rural Texas, a predominately Republican, conservative Czech community famous for its lusciously delicious pastries called kolaches. At the Czech-American Restaurant on Main Street it's packed for lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: See you later.

GOODWYN: The older men wear Western shirts and cowboy hats, younger men in T-shirts and cowboy boots. Like Muska, most here don't blame the fertilizer plant for what happened. Michele Pavlas is a cashier and is a West native.

MICHELE PAVLAS: Well, they were here first. We built around them. So how do you do that?

GOODWYN: 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 regulator 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. But Texas has one of the most conservative antiregulatory legislatures in the nation.

Republican Joe Pickett is the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. He says any proposal that would give the state a lot more regulatory authority just isn't going to fly.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE JOE PICKETT: We need some. But if the answer in some people's mind is, OK, we need 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.

GOODWYN: Pickett says what might have a chance of passing is legislation requiring better bookkeeping and reporting from the chemical plants, a statewide website that would at least let the public know what it's living next to.

PICKETT: And that's just a start. I know that doesn't make it safe if I live in that. Did you tell me in that website whether I'm safe or not? No.

GOODWYN: Nevertheless, Pickett says the tragedy in West is the one opportunity the state is likely going to get to pass any kind of new safety regulations.

PICKETT: And I think if we keep the discussion on West and the disaster that it was, I think we can do it. Yes.

GOODWYN: As for the elected representatives in West, they too are conservative Republicans. But they have experienced a catastrophe that blew up part of their town. Mayor Tommy Muska says he's learned one thing.

MUSKA: Sprinkler systems. If this plant would have had a sprinkler system, that small little fire that started at that golf cart or that battery would have been doused by a sprinkler system if it would have been in place. That would have never engulfed the building. It would have never ignited the ammonium nitrate. Me and you would not even be talking right now.

GOODWYN: Fifteen lives and $100 million in damage saved by a sprinkler system? When asked about whether the legislature would consider a bill that would require chemical and fertilizer plants in Texas to have sprinkler systems, House chairman Joe Pickett says that could have a chance of passing. But he's not sure.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.