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Explosion in West, TX

In quiet West, an ordinary night quickly turned to incomprehensible disaster

Posted Saturday, Apr. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WEST -- It began like any ordinary April evening in this traditionally ethnic Czech enclave in Central Texas.

A sign outside City Hall advertised a list of public dances, dinners and events scheduled for the upcoming mild spring weekend.

Many residents were back from jobs in nearby Waco or Hillsboro or down on Oak Street, busy with household chores, when the 29-member volunteer fire department was alerted.

The call was seemingly routine -- extinguish a blaze at the local fertilizer yard, not far from West Rest Home, a nursing center.

The quiet, tightly woven community of 2,800 would soon be thrust into worldwide headlines that competed with the Boston Marathon bombing, and life would never be the same for many touched by events that unfolded at West Fertilizer Co.

Here is an account of how the tragic, and frequently heroic, events unfolded:

Wednesday

7:29 p.m. Firefighters, including two brothers, the city's secretary, its mayor, a self-employed welder from nearby Abbott, a local funeral home director and an off-duty Dallas fire chief living in West, respond to a call at West Fertilizer, a decades-old venture owned in recent years by the Adair family, which also operates a local feed store. Don Urbanovsky, a member of the volunteer EMS unit, hears the alert and knows he'll be heading to the scene once the blaze is under control. Terry McElrath, a Baptist minister who also works as a youth probation officer in Hillsboro, is mowing his front lawn a few blocks from West Fertilizer -- until his home is rocked.

7:53 p.m. A massive explosion shoots a gray mushroom cloud above the fertilizer business on the northern edge of town, knocking volunteer firefighter David Maler to the ground. "They found him lying in the street," his mother said later. "It blew his shirt off." Mayor Tommy Muska, headed toward the fire but still a block-and-a-half away, has his own fire helmet ripped from his head by the force of the explosion.

More than 100 structures are damaged in a five-block radius, ranging from shattered windows to a complete pancaking. Walls and more collapse at the nursing home, a 15-unit apartment building and West Intermediate School. Fires blaze, a beacon to traffic heading to West from north and south under darkening skies on Interstate 35.

"I thought it was a bomb, a missile or something," McElrath, 57, said of the blast that forced open his front door and blew out most of his windows. Like others, the clergyman-probation officer is told to evacuate his home and would not know that by Saturday night he'd still have no word of when he could to return to inspect the damage.

8 p.m. Staff at West Rest Home scramble to locate 133 patients and summon help. The elderly and infirm, all in nightclothes, some wrapped in sheets, are wheeled outside. Ambulances from nearby towns converge on West.

8:15 p.m. Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco receives the first of some 100 emergency patients. By the early hours of Thursday, scores of the injured will be transported to hospitals as far north as Fort Worth and Dallas, and as far south as Temple.

9:15 p.m. Efforts are begun to transport the nursing home patients and West Assisted Living residents to safer parts of town, including the high school football field and the local VFW Post. Urbanovsky works to coordinate supplies for the elderly patients and residents, knowing just which emergency trailers to crack open. At West Assisted Living, he pulls out a load of cloth napkins "still warm" from the dryer to be used as makeshift bandages for those injured in collapsed buildings, and carries them off in a garbage bag.

9:25 p.m. Residents are lifted into the backs of pickups and ferried to staging areas. "They threw the wheelchairs in the back," said Urbanovsky. "We hoped that the lights were working at the football field."

9:45 p.m. All of the relocated nursing and rest home residents are either quickly fetched by family members or whisked to a nearby motel. Urbanovsky switches hats, relocating to the St. Joseph Parish Hall at St. Mary's of the Assumption, the main Catholic Church, which he helps turn into the disaster command center. At 4:30 a.m., after making countless gallons of coffee, Urbanovsky goes home for a 45-minute nap.

10:15 p.m. The first of five Salvation Army mobile canteens arrives, summoned by the Waco commander, Maj. Dan Ford. "He told us to go, and we go," said Jennifer Moya, a spokeswoman for the Christian charity. It would be joined by, among others, the Fort Worth chapter of Rapid Hope Disaster Relief, located at Chapel Creek Fellowship Church; Islamic Relief's Disaster Assistance Response Team; and a Southlake-based outfit called Operation BBQ Relief, which specializes in dispensing fresh smoked meats to displaced people and responders. A chicken wing franchise from Waco and a San Antonio-based supermarket chain, HEB, also send trucks of food.

11 p.m. The fire is contained at the fertilizer yard, officials say. The last of the live victims have been pulled from the rubble by this time, although the search continues through much of Thursday.

Thursday

4:30 a.m. Authorities say that between "five and 15" people have died, a vague figure that officials keep repeating before finally declining to say anything until Friday. Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton briefs the media, saying that as many as five volunteer firefighters are missing. Officials are stymied by conflicting reports of missing people, compounded by residents being forced from their homes and without their own phones and the difficulty of checking lists with hospitals in more than four cities.

Buildings are instantly transformed to meet sudden needs. Just as the parish hall became a command center, the West Auction livestock sale barn became the malodorous media center and the public library turned into the Red Cross headquarters, the VFW post on South Reagan Street was reinvented from a relocation point for evacuated nursing home patients to a pickup point for donated cots, bedding and clothing, as well as a round-the-clock feeding center for relief workers, law enforcement and the displaced, said the VFW's Mike Driscoll, a 33-year Navy veteran very much in charge.

Operation BBQ Relief sets up a mammoth smoker there to serve 600 dinners beginning at 5:40 p.m. Thursday, said Mark Barron, 54, who left Irving at 3:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for hundreds by 9.

About 8 a.m. President Obama issues a statement on the tragedy, saying: "West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people."

8:30 a.m. Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have taken over the probe into the explosion, Swanton announces. There is an unconfirmed report of looting. The restricted area, once about five residential blocks, is extended, with DPS highway patrol squad cars and state game warden blocking access roads. Swanton says the community is pulling together. "They won't leave someone standing in the rain," he says.

10 a.m. Officials say an estimated 160 people were injured. The most critical burn victims had been taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas; three elderly patients had been admitted to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. Out-of-town rescue units continue to arrive, including from the Burleson Fire Department and Fort Hood. Swanton confirms an "isolated" case of looting, but says there was no arrest.

3:30 p.m. Attorney General Greg Abbott, among the first of a line of state leaders to visit West, warns against price gouging when residents begin rebuilding efforts. So much aid has arrived that the city's fairgrounds are choked with truck trailers and palettes, prompting McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara to announce that no more material support will be accepted. McNamara said more than 200 law enforcement officers from around the state were searching debris in an attempt to find possible survivors.

"This is heartbreaking. There's no other way to describe it," he said. "The devastation was unbelievable."

6 p.m. An inter-faith service by clerics ranging from Catholics and mainstream Protestants to evangelicals is held at St. Mary's, the largest church in West. "No one boycotted," said McElrath. "We all pulled together." More than 1,000 people pack the pews, including an injured volunteer firefighter, his arm in a blue sling. The prayers are followed by a candlelight vigil.

Friday

8:15 a.m. Officials say the blast destroyed 50 houses, three firetrucks and an EMS vehicle. A total of 12 bodies have been recovered, with the fallen firefighters honored by a line of saluting colleagues, and taken for autopsies.

10 a.m. Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic's ambassador to Washington, tells the Star-Telegram that he came to pay condolences to the "most Czech" community in Texas, and said his government is prepared to provide material support. "This is not the occasion I would wish to have to be here for but, again, we will be with West now and in the future," the envoy said.

10:50 a.m. A Hillsboro High School band trailer backs into the entrance of an elementary school at the edge of the sealed neighborhood. A squad of high school athletes from the nearby town carries in desks and chairs, one of the numerous cooperative efforts local districts are making to relieve the plight of West's schools. Waco's Connolly school district offers classrooms for West's secondary school students.

11 a.m. Reports begin circulating of the fertilizer plant's previous citations for safety lapses and the thousands in fines for problems at the site, which stood a few hundred feet from a school and nursing home. There reportedly were no sprinklers or safety barriers for tanks containing anhydrous ammonia, a flammable substance that local farmers sprayed on their fields as a fertilizer.

About 2 p.m. Donald Adair, the 83-year-old owner of West Fertilizer, issued a statement expressing grief but fell short of making a public apology. "As a lifelong resident, my heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community. I know that everyone has been deeply affected by this incident. Loved ones have been injured or killed. Homes have been damaged or destroyed. ... I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion. He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. ... This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come."

3:15 p.m. Little information is filtering to the public, leading to rumors about when people might be able to re-enter their sealed-off neighborhoods. A woman runs up to a Salvation Army official, saying, "I hear you have a list of who can go to their homes." "Who told you that?" the relief worker replies, good-naturedly. Upset, the woman turns on her heel and shouts back, "I knew it was a wild goose chase."

4:30 p.m. Sgt. Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety announces that the death toll has risen to 14. Aderhold Funeral Home has added staff but says it has no dates set for funerals. One of its owners, Robert Payne, is hospitalized with injuries sustained in the blast.

5:05 p.m. Gov. Rick Perry tells reporters that safety issues and the location of the fertilizer tanks near a school should be examined. "The schoolchildren were pretty close, and these are legitimate, appropriate questions to be asking," Perry said.

6 p.m. The Catholic bishop from Austin, the Rev. Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, attends another interfaith service, again standing room only. McElrath said the crowd was moved when Vasquez quoted St. Teresa of Avila, which he took as a call to help one's neighbor -- "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion looks out on the world, yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now."

The Methodist minister, the Rev. Jimmy Sansom, told of his wife's fourth-grade student whose own family was directly impacted by the explosion. The boy spoke not of his own problems but asked her if she was doing OK.

Saturday

3 p.m. Residents of a few blocks within the cordoned-off area are permitted to visit their property for the first time since Wednesday night. McElrath said his own block will not be open for at least another day. Everyone is still in the dark, he said. Mayor Tommy Muska tells a town hall meeting that authorities hope to get everyone home within a week.

"My mother-in-law heard we might be able to go in for 15 minutes on Sunday," McElrath said. "But no one really seems to know."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter

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