EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 17, 2013, a massive explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, killed 15 people and caused hundreds of injuries. Of the dead, 12 were emergency responders from the Abbott, Bruceville-Eddy, Dallas, Navarro Mills and West fire departments who rushed to the scene.
West, Texas is a misnomer. West is the name of a small community in central Texas 20 miles north of Waco with a population of about 3,000. To get there you drive through peaceful rolling hills and pass vibrant green pastures, dotted with bluebonnets, evidence of recent spring rains.
West, Texas is where the terms EMS and firefighter are interchangeable. Firefighters serve as EMS and EMS back up the firefighters. There is a real sense of communal spirit, love and honor in small rural areas of Texas. Those feeling were deeply tried and tested in West on April 17, 2013.
When the West Fire Department got toned out for the initial fire, the department’s EMT students were practicing skills and studying for their final exam. Rick Coleman, an EMS instructor with the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), was conducting an EMT class. His students were scheduled to graduate one week later, April 24, 2013.
April Conaway, an EMT, and her husband, Coil, a paramedic, were serving as EMS volunteers that night. They were hanging out at the station, with no idea what was about to happen. Coil walked outside to take a phone call and saw smoke rising just a few blocks away. He shouted to April, “We have to go! There is a fire! We have to provide rehab and mutual aid for the firefighters.”
April and Coil ran to the ambulance, joined by Kevin Saunders, an EMT student who had finished practicing for the exam. Kevin wanted to ride out. The three mounted up and headed toward the fire.
Dorene Strickland, volunteer and self-appointed mother to the personnel of the nearby Abbott, Texas department, was participating in the same EMT course when the bell rang. Her son Russell Strickland, together with Cryus Reed, and Jerry Chapman, all firefighters from Abbott, and Perry Calvin, an EMT from the neighboring town of Mertense, were also practicing with the class. Dorene observed Cyrus as he jumped up with his usual wide-eyed smile, running towards his personal vehicle to respond to the fire. Chapman and Calvin responded in their own vehicles too.
Dorene and Russell responded Code Three, returning the six miles to Abbott to get equipment and pick up available personnel. They made the trek there and back, in less than five minutes, determined to help their neighbors in West.
Chief Bradley Matthys of Abbott Fire responded directly to the scene in his personal vehicle. Chief Tom Marek of West EMS, also an Abbott firefighter, responded to the Abbott fire station to pick up one of the engines, then made his way to the fire.
April, Coil and Saunders were the first arriving EMS crew. When approaching the fire, they found hose stretched across the railroad tracks entering the plant. Firefighters had not charged the line yet and waved the ambulance over the hose and closer to the blaze. Water was shuttled by various apparatus as a permanent water supply had yet to be established. Cryus Reed, pulled in behind the ambulance, jumped out, donned his bunker gear and sauntered confidently up to April, grinning ear to ear, “Don’t worry, April. I got this.”
April nodded and smiled back saying, “Be careful, Cyrus.” As he walked toward the fire, Kevin Saunders, wearing only jeans and a T-shirt, was determined to go with him. April warned him, saying “You are here as EMS with no bunker gear. Stay with us.” Saunders kept following Cyrus towards the fire.
There was so much smoke and radiant heat coming from the fire that Coil became concerned about air quality. He radioed back to the EMS station, requesting the EMT students evacuate patients from a nursing home just 200 yards from the fire.
Dr. George Smith, the EMS medical director, and Mike Reed, the EMS supervisor, were already taking action. The EMT students began moving the nursing home residents to the west side of the building away from the radiating heat and choking smoke. Towels were stuffed under doorways to limit smoke entry. EMS students were ordered to shelter the patients in place with preparations to begin evacuations if needed.
Chief Waylon Price of the Whitney, TX, Fire & EMS Services, 22 miles away, was responding to the fire, too, when the unthinkable happened.
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For other IFW articles about the West explosion, check out the following: