WEST, Texas—The neighbourhood surrounding a Texas fertilizer plant that erupted in a thunderous explosion is gone, and the residents here know they’ve lost more than the buildings that went up in flames.
Even as investigators were tight-lipped about the number of dead from the blast—authorities say more than 160 are injured but have not yet released a firm death toll—the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800, even if they hadn’t been officially released. Believed to be among them is a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the fire to fight it before the blast.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer Co. $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled.
Records show the company took corrective actions.
Even without a full picture of the loss of life, what was becoming clear was that the town’s landscape was going to be changed forever by the four-to-five block radius levelled by the blast. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze, and as many as 80 homes were seriously damaged.
Residents were still being kept out of a large swath of West, where search and rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble. Some with permission made forays closer to the destruction and came back stunned, and it was possible that some residents would be let closer to their homes on Friday, emergency workers said.
Garage doors were ripped off homes. Fans hung askew from twisted porches. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all of the building’s windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.
McLennan County Sheriff Matt Cawthon said the area surrounding the destroyed fertilizer plant is a highly populated neighbourhood. He described it as “devastated” and “still very volatile.” Ammonium nitrate—commonly used as fertilizer—was found at the scene, but he didn’t know if any of the chemical remained.
The Wednesday night blast was apparently touched off by a fire, but it remained unclear what sparked the blaze. A team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still had not been able to begin investigating the scene because it remained unsafe, agency spokeswoman Franceska Perot said.
The West Fertilizer Co. facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be directly injected into soil, and a blender and mixer of other fertilizers.
In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.
State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it’s not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.
Associated Press writers Michael Brick, Nomaan Merchant and Angela K. Brown and video journalists John L. Mone and Raquel Maria Dillon in West; writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston and Seth Borenstein and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.