Son of plant owner: 'This kind of stuff is not supposed to happen to us'

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Gary Adair was working on the family farm outside of West when he first noticed the smoke in the distance.

"I was like, 'What's burning?'" said Adair, 53.

Ten minutes later, someone from town called him with the news that the West Fertilizer Co., which is owned by his father, was on fire.

He had just gone inside the house, planning to drive the 6 or 7 miles to the plant, when the explosion occurred.

"It felt like an extra loud sonic boom out in the country," Adair said. "I hadn't heard a sonic boom since I was a kid. About 30 seconds later, it dawned on me what it was."

Adair said his father, Donald Adair, has owned the grain and fertilizer distribution plant for about 7 or 8 years. About a dozen employees work there, including a volunteer firefighter, he said.

The plant closes at 5 p.m. so no employees were present when the fire broke out. He said no machinery is left on, leaving him stumped at what may have caused the initial blaze.

"You just don't know," he said. "They may never know."

Regulated by government

The plant, which has been in West for 50 years, contained as much of 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, records show. It is used to make fertilizer and can be highly combustible when combined with other chemicals, said Brian Zoltowski, assistant professor of chemistry at Southern Methodist University.

Because it can be used to make explosives, large scale sales of ammonia are regulated by government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2006, the plant was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.

"Anytime you have a large-scale industrial plant near a neighborhood, there's always risk of something occurring, a fire, an explosion," Zoltowski said.

Investigators have their work cut out for them as they try to learn the cause, he said.

"Without knowing the cause, it's really difficult to come to a rational conclusion whether there was any mishandling of materials, or whether this was just a freak accident," he said. "You don't want to jump to conclusions."

'It's really rough'

Adair said he rushed to the plant, getting as close as possible. The plant, he said, had obviously been leveled.

He and his 6-year-old grandson then headed to the town's community center, where some of the injured were being taken.

He helped load up those injured in the blast as they arrived in cars and in the back of pickup trucks, mostly residents from a nearby nursing home that had been severely damaged.

He arrived home about 4 a.m. He said he is with his father, who was too distraught to talk.

Like his father, Gary Adair grew up in West.

So did his children and now, his children's children.

The road their farm sits on is even called Adair Drive.

"Everybody in town basically knows everybody," Adair said, his words soon dissolving into sobs. "It's really rough. It's a tragedy."

Though he awaits confirmation like the rest of the town, Adair said he had a pretty good idea of who are among the dead.

"There are people you know just like a brother," he said.

"It's an unheard-of tragedy for a small town," he said. "This kind of stuff is not supposed to happen to us. All my heart goes out to everybody that's lost loved ones. And thank you to all the people that have helped."

Staff writer Yamil Berard contributed to this report.

Deanna Boyd, (817) 390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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