Six years later: Learning from the deadly West fertilizer plant explosion

Williamson County
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WEST, Texas (KXAN) — Thirty minutes before sunrise on a chilly April morning, a bright yellow glow shines out of the windows of the red garage doors that line the front of fire station #2 in Georgetown. All is calm and quiet outside except for the birds singing up a storm.

They’re not the only ones up and at ’em so early on a Monday. Several guys emerge from the garage and head to their cars. One crew is coming off a 24-hour shift as a fresh team of firefighters clock-in and start getting the trucks and ambulances ready for the unknown of what the day will bring.

Dylan Karl, 26, hangs his yellow fire suit up in his locker and sets his black helmet on top. You can see a white sticker on the side of it with black letters that read “For those that perished.” Above the four words is the West Fire Department badge covered by a black strip that bears the date 4-17-13. That’s the day 15 people were killed in an explosion in the small town north of Waco. Twelve of them were volunteer firefighters.

The Georgetown firefighter and paramedic remembers pieces of that horrific day like it was yesterday. It was the biggest call of his life — one most first responders will never experience over a lifelong career. The second generation firefighter was ready. 

A rush to the explosion

He was at home in a small town called Leroy, about seven miles from West.

“I’m sitting at home with my parents and we hear the explosion because it’s so — just so loud,” Karl said. 

Karl was a volunteer firefighter with the Elm Mott  Fire Department, and his pager started beeping. He jumped in the car and headed to the fire station to meet up with the other volunteers. Soon, they were in the truck on their way to West.

“The whole time I’m driving and I’m just looking at the smoke, thinking to myself ‘This is bad, this is gonna be bad,'” Karl said. “Everybody is on the radio, there’s a lot of chaos. They’re telling us that multiple firemen are down.” 

Pulling into West, they could see the calamity. The community known for its strong Czech heritage had been rocked by a massive explosion at West Fertilizer. Locals would later learn a fire at the plant spread to a large amount of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate that was stored inside.

Homes were on fire, and walls had been blown off schools and nearby businesses. Sheetrock and insulation were piled up in small pieces and looked like snow covering the floor.

Karl and his fellow firefighters started going from house to house putting out flames and at one point stopped the fire from spreading to the intermediate school. They eventually made their way over to help at the high school football field, which had become the triage area for first responders, nurses and doctors to treat the injured.

The following day, Karl and his team had the task of searching for people who may still be trapped and hidden under debris. That’s when he came across a white dog.

“He’s just scared to death, he’s just shaking, and I pulled the sheetrock off of him, got him kinda cleaned off, and we grabbed a comforter and put it around him to try to protect him,” Karl said.

It was a small victory, surrounded by such tremendous loss. 

Two of the West firefighters who lost their lives were fathers of his high school classmates.

Dangers in the plant prompt plans for the next disaster

Karl was somewhat familiar with the fertilizer plant that blew up. He had been there before to pick up fertilizer with his father-in-law but didn’t know the extent of what they stored there.

The West volunteer firefighters had no idea either, nor did they know how much damage the ammonium nitrate could do when mixed with fire.

When the final investigation report was released in 2016, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board called on cities and emergency management offices to do a better job pre-planning for similar disasters.

One of them is the Williamson County Emergency Management Office, which is in the process of getting a better handle on the dangers in their midst.

“In the past, a first responder would have to get to the scene, identify the address, then go look up to see if there were any hazardous materials being stored at [a certain] location,” said Kyle McKnight, a county Emergency Management Specialist.

It’s been his sole job over the last year to validate hazardous materials data from more than 250 facilities in the county and keep it updated in a special computer program that performs real-time disaster modeling.

“We found about 80% of these reports had some kind of error, whether it was material not being reported completely, not being specific about where it’s being held,” McKnight said.

The software, paid for with grants, calculates worst-case scenarios using current weather data. The computer screen looks much like Google maps and then layers a red-tinted circle over the bird’s eye view to illustrate who would be in harm’s way, and which direction a plume of smoke or chemicals would likely go.

McKnight says the county has become well aware of where the biggest threats are located so in the event of an emergency at one of the facilities, they’ve done everything in their power to plan for the worst.

First responders in the county, including Karl, can access the vital information from the laptop in their vehicles, on the way to a scene.

“That’s amazing,” Karl said. “To be able to have that information and to progressively look at it and know where this chemical could go and what’s gonna happen.”

West is a big reason he went on to become a certified hazmat technician and is on the hazmat team in Williamson County. He still lives near West and hopes the new tools and pre-planning that came out of that disaster will help saves lives for years to come.

Texas has security restraints on release of hazardous substance information

While first responders and emergency management offices in Texas have access to information about where hazardous chemicals are stored in commercial buildings, it’s not as easy for members of the community to find out what’s in their backyard.

Federal laws grant a community the right to know about hazards in their midst. The federal Emergency Preparedness and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) allows people to get access to information from their local emergency management coordinator, but Texas has put security restraints on the measure to keep the data from getting into the wrong hands. 

“That was not the intent of Congress to limit the information that is given to the public about chemical hazards in their midst,” said Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, the Interim Executive Authority with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. “The community ‘Right-to-Know Act’ is quite broad and quite extensive regarding the type of chemicals and the level of information the community members should have access to, so while I appreciate the concerns about security I don’t think that should completely overshadow a community’s right to know what dangers are in their midst.”

Following the West explosion, KXAN has tried to request statewide data specifically on businesses that store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate, but have been denied the information.

KXAN photojournalist Ed Zavala contributed to this report.

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