The West Fertilizer Plant Explosion
On April 17, 2013, the community of West, Texas, suffered a devastating and heartbreaking event in the evening hours. After a fire broke out inside the West Fertilizer plant, a massive explosion leveled the facility, caused millions of dollars in damage to surrounding buildings, and took the lives of over a dozen people. Sadly, the majority of those killed were volunteer firefighters who had responded to the fire and were unable to retreat to a safe distance before the explosion. Nearly 200 injuries were also reported to have been treated at local hospitals (Wood, 2013). The explosion was said to be caused by the combination of the fire and large stores of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the plant.
This catastrophic event received immediate coverage from news agencies and journalists across the country. Multiple local, state, and federal Agencies responded to the scene as first responders and post event investigators. The 6th Civil Support Team of the Texas Army National Guard was sent to the scene the following day to assist (Hoffman, 2013). The United States Geological Survey reported that the blast registered the same as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. It was said to have destroyed 140 homes and several other buildings to include a middle school and a retirement home (Hemenway, 2013b). Investigators said that the blast had left a crater measuring nearly ten feet deep and as much as 100 feet wide. President Obama issued a statement the day after:
Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas, in the aftermath of last night’s deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant. A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives. I want to thank the first repsonders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded. (Obama, 2013)
Millions across the country began demanding answers as to how this catastrophe could have happened. Why had a 60 plus year part of this small, close knit community suddenly become a mass casualty event? Locally and nationally, many had little knowledge about nitrogen based fertilizers, much less that they were stored there in such large quantities and could pose such an ominous threat. Another liquid, nitrogen based fertilizer, Anhydrous Ammonia, was also stored at the facility. West Mayor Tommy Muska said, “We just grew up with it out there. Nobody knew” (Hemenway, 2013b, para. 32). Many of the community who did know the fertilizers were there were still relatively unaware of their hazards and storage regulations. Others wondered what other factors could have been involved, such as what started the fire and whether or not the company had been negligent in any way. Finally, because of the nature of the incident, government officials had to ask if this had been an accident, a result of foul play, or, even worse, an act of terror.
Ammonium nitrate is an extremely common and important fertilizer...