On April 17, 2013, a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in West, TX, devastated that city and the ranks of its emergency responders. Federal and state investigations served as the source for the following sequence of events leading to the blast.
7:29 p.m. – A 911 call from an eyewitness in the park west of the plant is the first report of the fire.
West Fertilizer is a storage retail distribution facility selling mixed fertilizer, chemicals, farming supplies and grain to the public. Ammonium nitrate (AN), in the form of small beads or pellets known as prill, is among the fertilizer ingredients delivered by rail and truck to be stored in wooden bins at the site.
An estimated 40 to 60 tons of AN is stored in wooden bins on site at the time of the disaster, not counting an additional 100 tons in a railcar waiting to be unloaded.
Built in 1961, West Fertilizer was originally surrounded by open fields. Over the years, the city of West began to slowly build residences, schools and other occupied building within close proximity of the facility. It sits about 230 yards from West Intermediate School and 400 yards from West High School. An apartment complex and nursing home are located about 175 yards and 250 yards west of the plant, respectively. Single-family homes surround the plant property with the largest number to the west and south.
Two single-family homes are located across from the plant’s east entrance and one single-family home is adjacent north of the plant property.
7:31 p.m. -- West policeman Michael Irving, on patrol near the park, smells burning wood. A young basketball player points to heavy smoke rising from the roof of West Fertilizer. Irving immediately reports the fire by radio.
The fire is in the plant’s 12,000-square-foot bulk processing building. Bulk chemicals are mixed as per each customer’s instructions and then distributed from a loading dock and conveyor chute on the east side of the building.
Most of the wood building stands one-story high with the exception of the vertical storage bins, one of which is designated for ammonium nitrate, and associated conveyor and elevator equipment.
Under NFPA 220, the building is classified as Type-V 000 wood frame construction with no fire resistance rating for supporting structural members. The internal members are mostly exposed to the interior without a finished covering. Various materials are used for exterior covering, including tin sheathing and wood siding.
Built on a reinforced concrete slab, the structure has a combination roof consisting of asphalt shingles, asphalt, asphalt roll-roofing materials or corrugated sheet metal.
At the north end of the building is the “seed room,” where several hundred 50-pound bags of seed stacked on pallets are stored. The pallets are placed adjacent to the vertical ammonium nitrate (AN) bin. Twenty to 30 tons of AN with a 34 percent total nitrogen content, also referred to as 34-0-0 (with 97 percent pure AN), is stored in bulk granular form in the 24-foot-high bin. (The Chemical Safety Board has subsequently revised its estimate of the AN on hand to 60 tons.)
NFPA 400 defines AN 34 percent as a solid class 3 oxidizer and an unstable reactive class 3 detonable. However, U.S. regulations do not classify AN as an explosive until it has been blended with a fuel source. Fertilizer grade AN is not classified as an explosive.
Only a wood frame wall separates the AN bin from the pallets. AN is also stored in one of two smaller bins located along the west wall of the building. Separation from adjoining storage bins that contain potash, ammonium sulfate, diammonium sulfate and KMAG (a blend of potassium, magnesium and sulfur) is by means of a 10-foot-high wood framing and plywood walls.
The seed room also contains several hundred 50-pound bags of 36 percent dry zinc along with other general farm and ranch hardware. At the south end of the structure, storage tanks of liquid chemicals included liquefied anhydrous ammonia, a corrosive, flammable and water reactive gas stored under pressure as a liquid.
7:32 p.m. -- West VFD is dispatched.
Together at a West gas station, West VFD members C.J. Gillaspie, Douglas Snokhous and Cody Dragoo look north to see “billowing white smoke coming from the plant.” Dragoo, in charge of bulk processing at the plant, responds directly to the scene in his personal vehicle. Gillaspie, a West VFD captain, and Snokhous responded to the fire station in separate vehicles.
Meanwhile, Officer Irving took up a position near the plant’s north entrance. Orange-red flames penetrated the north end of the bulk processing building, he said.
7:37 p.m. -- Engine 1, driven by Joey Pustejovsky Jr., and staffed by Capt. Bob Snokhous and Morris Bridges, left the fire station, followed by Engine 2 driven by Capt. Gillaspie and staffed by Eddie Hykel.
Engine 1 is a 1997 Spartan Quality with a 1,500 gpm Hale pump, 750-gallon tank, 1,000 feet of 4-inch hose, two 200 foot long 1½ –inch hose cross lays and one 50-foot, 1½ –inch quick attack bumper line. Engine 2 is a 2004 Ford F750 XL Super Duty with a 1,500 gpm Darley pump, 1,000 gallon tank, 1,000 feet of 4-inch hose, two 200-foot foot long 1½–inch hose cross lays and one 50-foot 1¾–inch quick attack bumper hose.
Also en route to the plant is a water tender driven by Fire Chief George Nors Sr., and, later, a red brush truck driven by Pat Grimm with Stevie Vanek aboard.
Irving, en route to evacuate the park, passes Engine 1 on Jerry Mashek Drive traveling in the opposite direction. After issuing a warning with his public address system, Irving returned to the plant’s north entrance.
7:39 p.m. -- Engine 1 arrived on scene and reported flames showing.
Pustejovsky asks Engine 2 to hook to a hydrant when it arrives. He then pulls one 1½–inch hand line from the Engine 1 bumper and one 1½–inch cross-lay hand line to attack the fire from outside through a sliding door on the east side of the building.
Capt. Douglas Snokhous positions the white brush truck at the northwest corner of the plant’s office building, northeast of the burning bulk processing facility. He deploys at least one 1½ –inch hand line.
Engine 2 takes up a position about 1,600 feet south of the plant entrance, dropping a 1,000 feet of 4-inch hose supply line for connection. Gillaspie, realizing the hose will not reach the fire, plans to forward lay all of the supply line off Engine 2, then, in reverse, lay the 4-inch hose off Engine 1 before charging the lines from the hydrant.
After deploying all the supply line, Gillaspie leaves Hykel at one end and moves Engine 2 to Engine 1’s position, wanting to use Engine 1 at the hydrant. Throwing the cross-lay on top of Engine 1, Gillaspie orders the Engine 1 crew to disconnect the bumper hose and switch trucks. Gillaspie drives Engine 1 to connect to a hydrant near the Jerry Mashek Drive and Spring Street intersection, but without reverse laying the 4-inch supply line as originally planned.
7:40 p.m. – Message relayed to the Abbott VFD requesting mutual aid.
West Assistant Fire Chief Emanuel Mitchell arrives but does not formally assume command. Dragoo informs him that the plant’s seed room is on fire.
7:41 p.m. – Though the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office dispatch, Mitchell requests that firefighters from the city of Lacy Lakeview bring a ladder truck.
Firefighter David Maler uses his personal vehicle to block the northeast entrance of the plant to keep out civilians. Arriving firefighter Kevin Maler tells David that he is going to the West Fire Station to retrieve their turnout gear.
Before he leaves, Kevin Maler receives a phone call from Brian Renegar, a former West firefighter and former West Fertilizer employee who says firefighters need to evacuate to a distance of at least a quarter mile because of the risk of explosion.
David Maler walks to the white brush truck, warning Capt. Doug Snokhous that the fire is bringing down overhead power lines. Snokhous moves the truck east with Maler’s help. Maler then joins other firefighters working on the south end of the burning building.
Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Harris introduces himself to firefighter David Maler, Capt. Dragoo and Assistant Chief Mitchell. He believes the building is a lost cause. Attention should be shifted to flowing water on the anhydrous ammonia tanks south of the building once a water supply could be established, he said.
Maler asked Dragoo about hazardous materials on site. Dragoo said a large amount of AN is present but “it could never get hot enough for it to go off.”
Dragoo told assistant chief Mitchell that the fertilizer and chemical were far enough away from the blaze to not concern the firefighters. The report issued by the Texas State Fire Marshal states that no order to withdraw is given.
Engine 2 repositions on the east side of the burning building, southwest of the office building.
A 2,000-gallon water tender driven by Nors is stationed on the roadway near the east entrance. As he did earlier with Maler, Renagar tells Nors that everyone should leave. Nors passes the information to Dragoo who said he did not think an explosion would happen. Nors, like Mitchell, did not order an evacuation.
7:45 p.m. – West Emergency Medical Services (EMS) responds along with students attending an Emergency Medical Technician-Basic (EMT) class at the West EMS building. The West EMS facility is located a few blocks west of the fertilizer plant. Students included members representing various area fire departments.
Kevin Sanders, a firefighter from the Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department, is assigned to Medic 2 as part of the EMT class ride-out requirements for the course. Abbott VFD firefighters Jerry Chapman and Cyrus Reed, and Mertens/Navarro Mills VFD firefighter Perry Calvin, students in the EMT class, respond to the call for mutual aid, taking their personal vehicles to the fire.
7:47 p.m.: Medic 2 arrives on scene, parking near the scale house about 600 feet southeast of the bulk processing building.
Conaway, suspecting that burning chemical may be releasing toxic smoke, contact Mitchell. He asks if any evacuations had begun. Mitchell indicates that no evacuations had been ordered. Conaway orders that remaining students at the West EMS building begin evacuating a nearby nursing home.
Sanders left Medic 2 and walks toward the fire, despite Conaway’s request that he stay.
Chapman, Reed and Calvin park their vehicles southeast of the plant and walk past Medic 2 toward Engine 2. Conaway states that only one of the firefighters wore turnout gear.
West VFD firefighter Robbie Payne observes several unidentified firefighters and a civilian, Jimmy Matus, an employee of Westex, a fire apparatus manufacturer. It is not unusual for Matus to respond to fire scenes to help with apparatus operation.
7:50 p.m. – Asst. Chief Mitchell contacts the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office via telephone regarding the request for mutual aid from Abbott and Lacey Lakeview.
Gillaspie and Marak are in the process of making the connection from the hydrant to Engine 1 when the plant roof collapses.
7:51 p.m. – Explosion.
Ten firefighters, two civilians responding to assist and three civilians in the residential area west of the plant are killed in the blast. Several more responding firefighters suffered debilitating or near fatal injuries. The blast creates a 90-foot-wide and 10-foot-deep crater. It damages or destroyed 500 structures within a 37-block area, including three schools, the West EMS building, a nursing home, an apartment complex and many single-family homes.
A blast model prepared by ABS Consulting for the Chemical Safety Board calculated that many of the structures experience a pressure wave of one-pound-per-square inch. The equivalent would be a 144-pound load on a 12-inch by 12-inch floor tile, producing a substantial amount of damage.
More than 200 civilian injuries are reported. Initial loss estimates reach $100 million. Pieces of debris from the plant land as far away as 2½ miles. The blast registers as a 2.1 earthquake on the Richter scale.
The railcar containing 100-tons of AN was toppled by the blast but did the contents did not detonate.
Bridges; Calvin; Chapman; Dragoo; Harris; Matus; Pustejovsky; Reed; Sanders and Douglas and Robert Snokhous died from blunt force and blast injuries. Civilian William Uptmor, Jr., attempting to evacuate livestock from property east of the plant, also died.
The Texas State fire Marshal’s Office made the following recommendations to prevent injuries and reduce risks to firefighters in the future.
• Develop standard operating procedures/guidelines to train and educate members on firefighting and emergency scene strategies and tactics for high-hazard occupancies.
• Develop pre-incident plans by visiting the commercial and high-risk properties within the response jurisdiction.
• Utilize risk management systems on all emergency responses to determine when to employ alternative tactics.
• Incorporate incident management systems into every emergency incident, training exercise and basic operational process of the fire department to provide appropriate command and control for conducting operations.
• Implement a strategic incident action plan (LAP) for all emergency operations through a coordinated application of appropriate emergency scene tactics for the presented dangers.
• Ensure that an incident safety officer (ISO), a person who is independent from the incident commander, is appointed and effectively utilized at every incident that would require an ISO.
• Establish a hazardous materials program and actively train members on the tactics to use when an incident involving hazardous materials occurs.
• Install approved fire protection systems in hazardous buildings in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
• Ammonium nitrate shall be separated by fire barrier walls of not less than one-hour fire resistance or located in a separate building as required by NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, 2013 Edition.
• Local jurisdiction should adopt and enforce a fire prevention code. Codes prescribe minimum requirements necessary to establish a reasonable level of fire and life-safety and property protection from the hazards created by fire, explosion and dangerous conditions.
• Existing structures that do not meet the requirement of NFPA 400, 2013 Edition, should be retroactively provided with several key features to assure adequate public and firefighter safety.
• Develop written policies and have procedures in place to restrict members from participating in department activities while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.