One year ago today, the town of West, Texas, and the overall community of first responders suffered a massive blow when an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company resulted in 11 firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), three civilian casualties and more than 200 injuries.
The majority of fatalities in West were firefighters, many from volunteer departments. Among those from the West Fire Department were Jimmy Matus, 52; Morris Bridges, 41; Cody Frank Dragoo, 50; Joey Pustejovsky, 29; and brothers Douglas Snokhous, 50, and Capt. Robert Snokhous, 48.
The Abbott Fire Department also lost Cyrus Adam Reed, 29, and Jerry Dane Chapman, 26, both nearing the end of their EMT training. Additional fatalities included Perry Calvin, 37, from the Merkel Fire Department, Kevin Sanders, 33, a volunteer firefighter with the Bruceville-Eddy Fire Department, and Dallas Fire-Rescue Captain Kenneth Harris, 52, who was off duty when responding to the incident at the West Fertilizer Company.
All parties responded to a fire at the West Fertilizer Company around 7:30 p.m. Twenty minutes later, the plant exploded in a blast that registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake and razed homes and businesses within five blocks, destroying a nursing home, an apartment complex and a middle school.
Investigators have never identified the cause of the initial fire, nor ruled out a possible criminal act. The resulting explosion, however, is thought to be caused by the ignition of ammonium nitrate, several tons of which were stored at the plant in flammable wooden containers.
At the time of the blast, state officials did not have an accurate tally of how many facilities in Texas stored large amounts of ammonium nitrate or how safe those facilities were. Soon after the incident, Texas Fire MarshalChris Connealy embarked on a statewide tour to meet with first responders and agricultural businesses and discuss how to store the chemical, as well as how to respond to a fire like that in West.Connealy stressed the importance of frequent training, yet also called on fire chiefs to be ready to say a fire was too dangerous to fight–even if that went against firehouse culture.
“We have to make sure that our culture embraces safety,” he said.
As we remember those lost in the West explosion, we remind ourselves of the precautions we must take to lessen the likelihood of another LODD event of such magnitude:
- All departments should conduct a risk assessment throughout their response area.
- Develop a standard of cover (preplanned response) for high-hazard occupancies within your district.
- Review your department’s Emergency Response Plan regularly.
- Review auto-aid and mutual aid agreements to better understand the availability of resources and what it takes to request their response.
- Become familiar with your Emergency Operations Center–what does it take to activate it? What role will you play and how will it help you and other responders in the field? (See the recent FireRescue article, “The Role of the EOC,” at www.firefighternation.com/article/special-operations/role-eoc.)