On Wednesday, April 17th the town of West, Texas suffered a major tragedy when West Fertilizer Co. exploded. The disaster has been confirmed to have killed at least 14 people and injured around 200. Due to the volatile chemicals housed within the site, the explosion was so severe that it completely destroyed 50 homes and an apartment building. It likewise necessitated a large-scale evacuation of the area and took down water and electrical services.
The powerful blast left a crater of destruction where the fertilizer company had stood. In fact the heat of the explosion was so severe that metal rail ties from the nearby Union Pacific lines were mangled and melted. The explosion pushed rails into each other and the melted metal welded them together.
AMMONIUM NITRATE MAY HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE ACCIDENT
Investigators are still trying to reconstruct the accident to determine the chain of events which led to the catastrophe and what the underlying cause may have been. Thus far, speculation has included the possibility that West Fertilizer Co. may have been storing unsafe levels of ammonium nitrate. As of last year they reported having at least 540,000 pounds of the chemical, 1,350 times the amount that would usually result in oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In addition to possibly housing unsafe levels of ammonium nitrate, the plant may also have stored other hazardous chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia.
Regulation of ammonium nitrate, which is routinely used as an explosive for mining, road construction, and other commercial uses, falls under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security. In fact the explosive substance is the same one that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. However, despite the potential dangers of ammonium nitrate, the DHS has stated that it was unaware of the presence of high levels of this chemical at West Fertilizer Co., and that the plant did not disclose this information. The information regarding the 540,000 pounds present last year was instead filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services and was not shared with the DHS.
WEST AND SURROUNDING COMMUNITIES SPRING INTO ACTION TO BEGIN OVERCOMING THE DEVASTATION
Despite the devastation that has been wrought on the community, West, Texas is strong and has already been mobilizing its cleanup and repair efforts. West is also fortunate to be part of a steadfast network of support which includes neighboring communities such as Connally, Waco, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as the state and nation as a whole, all of whom have been generous and unhesitating in their donations and assistance. McLennan County, of which Waco is the seat, has been providing West’s citizens with buckets full of nonpotable water so that they can flush their toilets.
Meanwhile Grand Prairie ISD in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has donated three portable classrooms to help house the displaced West ISD school children. Likewise, in a heartwarming gesture, Connally ISD – West’s usual school rival which will be receiving West’s 7th through 12th grade students – even went so far as to paint some of their lockers in West’s school color of red, to help West’s displaced students feel welcome.
Perhaps the saddest, yet most inspiring aspect of the whole tragedy is that of the 14 confirmed fatalities 10 of those were volunteer firefighters and residents who bravely fought the blaze to protect West and its citizens from further harm. In recognition of this ultimate sacrifice there will be a memorial in their honor at Baylor University in nearby Waco. It is expected that representatives from first responder groups all over the nation will be in attendance.