The City of West, Texas Leveled by Fertilizer Plant Explosion

The small town of West, Texas, north of Waco, has had its fertilizer plant blow up around 7:15pm CST. There was a fire with fire fighting units on-site when a tank in the plant exploded in a massive fireball described as “nuclear” by local residents.

The plant, and buildings within four blocks — including the hospital, apartments & a nursing home — have been leveled with many on fire. The local school district is closed the next two days from damage and use as a trauma center.

Dallas TV is reporting the West EMS director as giving a casualty count of 60-70 dead with hundreds injured in a town of 2,500.

The local Dallas TV is showing most of West is on fire with a 10-mile back up on I-35 filled with 1st responders and other traffic. I-35 between Waco and West is currently in the midst of a major construction project contributing to this.

The triage center at a local football field was evacuated at 10:00pm CST for fear of another tank at the plant exploding.

Further Dallas media reports (10:50pm CST) are that Northern Waco is being evacuated for fear of toxic chemical releases from the West Fertilizer Plant fires.

Update 11:20pm:
The Mayor of West has held a press conference that just ended (11:15PM CST). The Mayor is also a fire fighter and was a block away, responding, when the plant blew. He did not give overall casualty numbers, but five West fire fighters were on-site when the plant blew and are unaccounted for. The nearby nursing home was evacuated. First responders are going house to house in the northern portion of town looking for survivors, wounded and dead. Areas north of West are being subjected to a potentially toxic smoke plume but the fire is under control.

Earlier reports of Waco evacuation appear untrue.

Update: 06:30 AM
The death count dropped overnight from 60-70 to 5-to-15 “missing” mostly from the West Volunteer Fire Department. Facebook has a photo of the blast cloud here.

The cloud has the characteristic mushroom shape of any really large explosion. FYI, that photo was taken from Arlington, Texas about 70 miles away.

Update: 11:15am

The blast photo was changed as there was a question the earlier photo was faked.

Update: 12:40 pm
The main tank that blew in West had a 12,000 gallon volume and CNN is now reporting multiple hospital victims with anhydrous ammonia burns. That tank is almost certainly the source of the anhydrous ammonia. See the comments section for a retired OSHA investigator’s view of the explosion videos.

Update 12:50pm
West is known for a couple of things in Texas. Really good kolaches (pigs in a blanket with alternete fruit or cheese fillings for you non-Czech-Texans) and Westfest a polka festival every Labor Day. I suspect Westfest is going to be much more somber this year.

16 thoughts on “The City of West, Texas Leveled by Fertilizer Plant Explosion”

  1. I believe that particular photo is a fake. The “real” ones I saw appeared to be more of a traditional smoke header/column rising up.

    As far as the explosion itself, the videos going viral this morning seem to suggest a classic BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) tank explosion.

    Or as some smart ass firefighters call it – Blast Leveling Everything Very Efficiently.

    Famous (or infamous) ones were Crescent City, IL in 1970, Kingman AZ in 1973, Texas City had one in 1978. There are others to be sure but these are the ones that first come to mind.

  2. I am familiar with the Texas City 1947 blast. This is the first I have heard of the 1978 blast.

  3. This was a comment by an exlocal on a business review site covering the West Fertilizer plant via Google —

    If you have the means, please seek out aid agencies and charities to help those in need. West is the kind of peaceful place where almost everyone is friends or related by a couple links. This kind of event will decimate the town, physically and emotionally.

    My brother and I used to play as children on the playground just a dozen feet across the railroad tracks from the fertilizer plant, with our grandma’s house was a few houses up to the north. It’s eerie. I remember the tanks and silos of the plant looming over us kids. I was too young to know what it was.

    Our grandma moved out a few years ago, but her old house is probably gone from the blast. I fear for the neighbors and hope they got out in time. It sounds like there was about half an hour of fire, and knowing the risks, people hopefully ran as soon as possible. Even if they escaped, everything they own would now be gone. Please find a way to help aid agencies, even a little bit.

  4. Sgt. Mom – The current header pic at Drudgereport appears to have been taken from in front of the Czech Stop, the cloud from the blast rising over the “Sonic” drive through next door.

  5. I found the following searching on the term “BLEVE”.

    It is quite an education on happened at West —

    Lamentations on Chemistry

    Th’ Gaussling..Editorials of a Scientist Political

    BLEVE- Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion

    by gaussling

    There is kind of fire behaviour called a BLEVE- Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. A BLEVE is what happens, for instance, when a closed container of flammable liquid is exposed to strong heating. It can be caused by an external source, like a pool of burning liquid around the container, or it can result from a runaway reaction within a drum, cylinder, or tank. The internal pressure builds up more rapidly than it can be vented and the containment fails, often explosively.

    Given that there is probably an ignition source already present, the rapidly expanding cloud of hot vapor and aerosol ignites. At minimum, the ignition will lead to a deflagration, or if conditions are right, a detonation of a fuel/air mix could happen over a relatively large space.

    These things often begin with some kind of tanker accident resulting in a discharge and ignition of flammable liquid. As responders arrive they find a burning pool underneath the tanker. Naturally, firemen and bystanders try to help those who may be hurt. As the minutes tick away and the fire becomes more aggressive and the tank gets hotter, the firefighters get their equipment in place and attempt to cool the tanker and suppress the fire. Suddenly it explodes violently yielding a large fireball and heat pulse. It is at this point that the surviving bystanders and responders see the error of their ways.

    Containers of flammable liquids rarely explode in a symmetric fashion so the container or its fragments are likely to be sent flying at high velocity, possibly spewing flammable material as it moves. Even a relatively small volume of flammable liquid dispersed explosively can fill a large surrounding space with a fireball.

    All chemical plants have their protocols for emergency response. It is important for those in charge to recognize an incipient BLEVE and respond accordingly. But even academic chemists should familiarize themselves with the phenomenon. A fire in the lab engulfing closed containers of flammable solvents is extremely dangerous and very quickly firefighting may become your last earthly act, especially without personal protective equipment. It is easy to under estimate the violence of these things.

    Every lab person needs to look inward and decide what their personal limit is for dropping the fire extinguisher and running for the exit. In my sophomore organic labs, the seed I planted in the students mind was this: The main purpose of a fire extinguisher was to fight your way to an exit

  6. It sounds much like fuel-air bombs and they are called “daisy cutters” for a reason. You’d think a plant would have a fire fighting system to cool tanks automatically.

  7. This is from a retired OSHA bubba I know —

    This was an industrial plant, producing a chemical product, so OSHA has a strong interest in this explosion. The Dallas Region VI response team was probably on site by sunrise. They could have been there earlier, but OSHA is not a first responder and tries to stay out of the way until the victims are evacuated and the site is under control.

    I know a couple of local OSHA warhorses that were up late watching the CNN coverage. Da-a-a-a-mn! This is a fire marshal’s nightmare.

    [There are other fertilizer plants across the state. Without knowing what this one was making, it is difficult to speculate on what caused the explosion. It was definitely handling bulk quantities of anhydrous ammonia, which is a potential fire hazard, although it is very difficult to ignite. Such plants tend to be poorly maintained and without adequate process controls to prevent such catastrophic incidents. I have seen plants that made ammonium sulfate (a non-explosive material not to be confused with ammonium nitrate) that had ammonia storage tanks that were rusted by exposure to sulfuric acid vapor. I have also seen plants that made ammonia and also urea, which were in very good condition ]

    I have found two videos of the site explosion – one from a parking lot and another from a car window by the property fence. In both of them, if you do frame by frame (start/stop with the pause button), you can see that there is an initial explosion to the left of the camera (downwind of the plant fire). It is followed very quickly by a large secondary explosion from the site of the plant fire, which knocks the witnesses on their keesters. The initial blast is off frame, so you can’t see exactly where it started. It is apparent because of the visible flash from the left of frame. One video shows it in the air, as though it were an ignited gas cloud (a possibility). The other one was apparently closer to it, because the flash effect literally washes out the screen just before the big one goes. There is a significant amount of dirt churned up by the secondary, making it evident that there was significant cratering.

    [These primary flashes could be artifacts of flash hitting the optics of the camera, but I doubt it.]

    Possible scenarios:

    1. A large LP gas storage tank ruptured and the subsequent vapor cloud ignited, leading to the disastrous secondary.

    2. The fire released gases and combustion products that finally reached an explosive concentration downwind of the fire and flashed back to the source.

    3. A natural gas line was ruptured, releasing natural gas vapor into a significant size vapor cloud, which ignited.

    [4. If the initial flash was just an artifact of the camera, the fire ate into stockpiled materials within the plant to cause the big explosion. ]

  8. The main tank that blew in West had a 12,000 gallon volume and CNN is now reporting multiple hospital victims with anhydrous ammonia burns.

  9. Confirmed dead in West this far, from Dallas AM Radio —

    6 — West Volunteer Firemen
    2 — EMS Workers
    1 — Law Enforcement Officer

    The 1/2 hour between the report of fire and the 7:50pm explosion was used to evacuate nearby apartments in West.

  10. West is the kind of town that had an accordian band (not an accordian in a band – an accordian band). Last weekend we were at the quarterly meeting of Czechs who sponsor exchanges that will increase the teaching and understanding of the Czech language. The biggest portion of that group isn’t from Dallas or Houston or Austin – it is people connected to West. The generousity, humor, wit, and seriousness of these people is remarkable. I’ve heard the population set at 2500 and injured at 160, Trent’s dead list is 9 – consider the percentages. Trent knows more about the town than I – my knowledge is pretty much those quarterly meetings, often held in West. But the people I know would be impressive on a much bigger plain than that small town, but West has the kind of character that draws people back, realizing their roots came out of that soil.

  11. The death count in West has increased to 12. The reports said at least one of the new victims was a West Volunteer Fireman.

    The rule of thumb for mass casualty events is one dead for every nine wounded victims.

    There were 200 wounded and 12 deaths to date.

    If the one in nine ratio holds, we have up to 10 more deaths to “look forward too.” Bleh!

    The time line was a 7:30pm fire response and a 7:50pm explosion. I will update the post to reflect it when I have time.

  12. This is relevent information on the fertilizer plant in West from the NY Times —

    Records kept by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that the agency last inspected the plant 28 years ago. In that inspection, dated Feb. 13, 1985, the agency found five “serious” violations, including ones involving improper storage and handling of anhydrous ammonia and improper respiratory protection for workers. The agency imposed a $30 penalty on the company.

    Last June, the company was fined $5,250 by the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for violations involving anhydrous ammonia. An investigator reported the violations after an inspection of the plant in September 2011, and the agency later determined that the company had corrected the violations.

    An OSHA spokesman said the plant was not included in its so-called National Emphasis Plan for inspections because it did not produce explosives and had no major prior accidents, and the E.P.A. did not rate it as a major risk.

    Zak Covar, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the company had been in business since 1962 and was one of a number of small fertilizer companies across rural Texas. The company has “an average compliance history,” with one air-quality complaint registered. In that episode, on June 9, 2006, according to state records, residents complained to the commission about an “ammonia smell” that was “very bad last night.”

    That occurrence was investigated by the agency and resolved with the granting of two air permits to the company by the end of that year, Mr. Covar said.

    Because it was built in 1962, the facility was grandfathered in to state regulations, Mr. Covar said. The company was supposed to get reauthorized in 2004, but failed to do so. Mr. Covar did not know the reason.

  13. Aw hell…from the same NY Times article —

    One of the firefighters who died was Kenny Harris, 52, a captain with Dallas Fire-Rescue. He lived in West, but was not a member of the town’s volunteer department. He had been off duty when he learned of the fire at the plant, according to a spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue.

    “Captain Harris rushed to the scene, compelled to provide assistance to his community during this crisis,” Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas said in a statement. “I want to express my deepest condolences to his family, friends and co-workers.”

    Captain Harris was married and the father of three sons. He had served with Dallas Fire-Rescue for 30 years.

  14. Final death toll in West was 14 with all “missing” persons now accounted for.

    The investigation of the blast is focused upon ammonium nitrate fertilizer being heated to explosion rather than the 12,000 gallon anhydrous ammonia tank.

  15. Two of the dead firefighting volunteers were brothers who lived in West and worked at the same company in Waco. This is a small town, and the volunteer company lost about a third of their force of thirty. I have done so much work in small towns like this – everyone knows each other; went to the same high school, volunteer for the same local clubs, participate in the same yearly events, their children play on the same sports teams …
    I think, though – that small towns like this are also very resiliant. The pain will never go away, or be forgotten – but the local people will endure.

Comments are closed.