Speaker talks about Texas blast

By Ray Nolting
Parsons Sun – March 29, 2017

Photo by Ray Nolting

The emergency management coordinator for McLennan County, Texas, spoke Tuesday morning to a group of Southeast Kansas emergency workers and others about a 2013 fire and explosion in Texas that killed 15 people and injured more than 200.

About 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, the same chemical used to create the bomb that destroyed the Alfred Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, was stored at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013. This was a busy time for the plant that mixed chemicals for fertilizers for farmers.

At 7:29 p.m. that night, the public safety answering point, or PSAP, which is a 911 dispatch center, for that area received the first of many calls reporting a fire at the fertilizer plant.

Frank Patterson, the emergency management coordinator for McLennan County and the city of Waco, Texas, discussed the incident in detail at the Parsons Municipal Auditorium so others could learn from mistakes made in Texas and from the many things that emergency responders and emergency management did right.

Patterson said the first 911 caller didn’t know the address of the fertilizer plant, but said she saw and smelled smoke coming from it. She told the dispatcher what road the plant was on, but the road and plant address couldn’t be found quickly in the computer-aided dispatch system.

Toward the end of the nearly three-minute 911 call, which Patterson played, the dispatcher said she would direct fire resources to the plant, part of which is located in the city limits of West.

A middle school, nursing home, apartment complex and residences were near the plant.

Patterson said the difficulty in finding the plant address was a data problem.

“This is not a people problem. This is a data problem,” he said.

The street the plant is on changed names three times within a mile, from North Roberts to Jerry Mashek Drive to another name.

The other problem was the possibility of a hazard from the fire given the volatile chemicals stored there. The CAD system said nothing of potential hazards.

Patterson said he maps this out in McLennan County. He maps out hazards from industry and other sources so the information comes up in the CAD system when pulled up by dispatchers, who then forward this information to first responders during emergencies.

“That’s because we do it ourselves, not because it’s mandated by the state. And, quite frankly, it really should be at a state level,” Patterson said.

A bill in the Texas legislature failed to pass that would have required this hazardous materials information to be included in CAD systems because 911 districts opposed it for the potential cost.

The next call that night came from a police officer in West who noticed the fire. The dispatcher told him fire units were en route.

By 7:39 p.m. firefighters realized how big the fire was and called for additional resources. At 7:51 p.m., the plant exploded. The blast caused a magnitude 2.1 earthquake and left a crater 93 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Firefighters on scene were in the process of pulling back at the time of the explosion that left a plume of smoke hundreds of feet into the air. The pressure from the explosion also broke water mains underground, which hampered firefighting efforts.

“Nobody was thinking explosion. … Toxic gases, smoke. That’s what they were thinking about,” Patterson said.

In addition to firefighters and other first responders who died, two fatalities were pulled from the nearby apartment complex. Most of the injured came from the nursing home.

Patterson said the explosion happened while he was en route to West. He discussed in detail setting up an incident command area and marshaling resources to various areas for the ambulance service, firefighting and hazmat crews to monitor the air for toxins and put out fires, search and rescue where the damaged homes and businesses were and law enforcement to keep vehicle traffic out of the area.

In the 30 minutes from the first 911 call at 7:29 p.m. that night, the 911 center received more than 1,000 911 calls for service. Many calls rolled to other answering points because 911 calls can’t be placed on hold.

In a blink of an eye that night, “The world changed for a lot of people. The community changed. The county changed. The first responder community changed,” Patterson said.

The streets were filled with walking wounded when he arrived and a triage center was set up to assess injuries and send the most serious patients to hospitals first. It took a while for Patterson to take stock in the devastation. Bricks were in the street, doors were blown into houses, a man had been in his kitchen and was blown out the back wall into his yard. A chunk of the foundation from the building that held the ammonium nitrate damaged a home hundreds of yards from the plant.

He said training and drills helped the people work together because they all knew their roles. It helped that the people on scene were the people he trained with and worked with every week.

By 8:30 p.m. that night, injured patients were transported to hospitals. That process continued for hours that night.

People who lived in the apartment building and in the neighborhoods and were there anyway were enlisted to help and guide rescue crews.

More than 120 agencies responded that night. Many agencies that were also responding, even though they were not asked to, were called off. Those that came anyway were guided to staging areas.

“That’s a lot of agencies, that’s a lot of equipment, that’s a lot of people.”

The incident command center worked well until people discovered its location and wanted updates.

An anhydrous ammonia tank at the fertilizer plant developed a leak and complicated matters that week, but the Union Pacific Railroad crews on hand agreed to resolve the issue with the leaking tank if they were allowed to repair their railroad tracks to restart rail traffic.

The triage center moved as did the incident command center during the course of the next few days.

West Fertilizer Co. had been in business for 65 years. If the fire had occurred a month before or a month after April 17, there would not have been as big of a problem, he said. Ammonium nitrate degrades over time and the company didn’t normally store that much of it on site.

Eventually, federal authorities determined that the fire that caused the explosion was intentionally set. No arrests have been made.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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