WEST — The known and the unknown stood in the starkest
contrast Thursday, as daylight revealed to the world the gruesome
effects of a fertilizer plant explosion of a few hours before - a blast
so stunning it gave parts of this small Central Texas community the
appearance of a war zone, was felt 40 miles away and even registered on
the Richter scale.
There were at least two certainties as workers combed wreckage near
the plant for bodies, dead or alive. The West Fertilizer Company plant,
one of the largest private employers in this traditionally Czech town,
is no more. There are only small remnants of where it stood.
And there were fatalities. Members of the local volunteer fire
department were battling a fire at the plant when a separate part of the
plant exploded, flattening a nearby apartment complex and damaging or
destroying dozens of houses in the vicinity. Some of those firefighters
are known to have perished.
But what caused the Wednesday night blast and how many died as a
result of it remained unclear as the chilling darkness closed in
Thursday night. Reporters jousted with local authorities for much of the
day for any information on the dead, even for a reliable estimate. The
most frequently heard estimate was five to 15, although the mayor of
West had earlier predicted the toll would be much higher.
Late Thursday night, neither a count of the missing nor an official
list of those known to be dead had been provided by local or state
officials. More than 100 people were treated at hospitals in Waco,
suffering from punctures, cuts and other blast-related wounds. But the
full extent and seriousness of their injuries also was unclear.
The damage was not. The ugly tableau of West in the aftermath was
scattered across the country via websites and newscasts - one image
after another of smashed homes, ruined cars, damaged school buildings
and block-long debris fields. Gov. Rick Perry
declared McLennan County a disaster area, and he said Thursday that
President Barack Obama has said he will do likewise and offer federal
For the second time in three days, the nation was forced to come to
terms with a fatal explosion. And though dissimilar in nature and cause,
each brought a desire for consolation and community. In West, the day
started with small groups of friends and neighbors gathering in quiet
conversation and ended with a candlelight vigil for the victims at the
local Catholic church.
Reliving the drama
Mike Hutyra does not typically see the sunrise, as breakfast is not
on the menu at the West Bar and Grill. But he got up early Thursday and
opened at 7 a.m. to give townsfolk a warm place to gather and compare
stories. News reporters who had descended on West overnight were
crisscrossing local streets looking for residents who had experienced
the explosion first-hand. There was no shortage.
There were people like Janie Salazar, whose first thought upon
feeling the shockwave from the blast was that a plane had hit her house.
The windows were knocked out, a small piece of glass lodging in the leg
of her daughter.
Salazar gathered her family and stormed out the door. They ran and
ran, but later she acknowledged she had no idea what she was running
Claudia Wolfe never saw the shard of glass that flew by her head and
stabbed into the drywall behind her. Glass was everywhere. She and her
daughter were covered in it but luckily were not hurt. The fertilizer
plant was a half-mile or so away, and a disaster there was not her first
"I thought the house exploded," Wolfe said.
Zachery Kocain and a friend were fortunate to be standing outside, in
a cornfield, when the plant went up. The force knocked him 5 feet back,
and it was only instinct that kept him moving after he hit the ground.
"Me and my friend, we started to crawl," Kocain recalled Thursday
from the same field where he was recording the fire with his phone less
than 20 hours earlier. "Then I told him to run because the pieces of the
plant would start coming down."
The 17-year-old circled back to his house across the street to find his mother in a state of panic.
"My mom went into shock - I heard her scream 'my babies' because she
thought I was dead," Kocain said. But she, his two younger brothers and
his two nephews mostly were dazed. The 1-year-old nephew suffered a cut
on his leg, and the 4-year-old a different sort of trauma: fear.
"He said the monsters shook the house," Kocain said.
In truth, the monsters were man-made. The nitrogen fertilizers are
manufactured with different forms of ammonia, which can be fatal to
breathe and potentially volatile. However, the processes involved go
back almost a century and are used in thousands of plants nationwide.
Explosions are relatively rare.
That fact was of no consolation Thursday in this traditionally Czech
town of 2,800, known if at all for kolaches, sausage and polka dancing -
the main ingredients of its well-attended annual celebration Westfest.
While residents spoke of helping their neighbors and rebuilding their
hometown, the knowledge of friends lost and funerals to come was
The firefighters who rushed to the plant when the fire was reported
at 7:30 Wednesday night were known to most of those who live here.
Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes would not confirm
the number of missing firefighters or any other first responders "out of
respect to the their families." Reyes said local, county, state and
federal officials were still conducting search and rescue operations.
The area was still "volatile" because of potential chemical
contamination, and they do not know when the affected area would be
West Fertilizer Company had been a mainstay among local businesses
for generations. While there had been concern over the years about the
implications of an ammonia leak, the possibility of an explosion
apparently was far from anyone's mind. The company's own plan for a
"worst-case scenario" did not mention a catastrophic explosion.
In a June 2011 report filed with the Environmental Protection Agency
and local safety officials, the company said 54,000 pounds of anhydrous
ammonia is stored at the site. By itself, the fertilizer ingredient is
toxic but isn't considered to be highly flammable unless it's combined
with other chemicals.
"The worst-case release scenario would be the release of the total
contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes," the
company stated in its 2011 risk-management plan. Such reports are
required under federal law for companies that store hazardous materials
to keep communities informed about potential risks.
The company reported that there had been no major accidental releases
of the gas in the previous five years. It said another possible
accident was a smaller chemical release from a break in a transfer hose.
The report makes no mention of other materials being stored at the site
that could combine with anhydrous ammonia and increase the risk of an
But on Wednesday night, when most citizens of West were concerned
only with the approach of a late-season cold front, the unmentioned -
the unimaginable - literally shook the town to its foundations. Less
than 24 hours later, those who survived lit white candles at a
non-denominational service at St. Mary's Catholic Church of the
They gathered in memory of the dead, and to reaffirm their commitment
to the living. In the words of Janie Salazar, who was among the
fortunate despite the damage to her home, "This is one thing about West -
we help each other out."