Dallas firefighter among dead in West, Texas explosion

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by TODD UNGER, STEVE STOLER, MARJORIE OWENS and MATT GOODMAN

WFAA

Posted on April 18, 2013 at 6:04 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 3 at 6:19 PM

WEST, Texas — A Dallas Fire-Rescue captain was confirmed dead in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion, according to a statement released by Lt. Joel Lavender, a spokesman with the department Thursday afternoon.

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Capt. Kenny Harris, who lives in West, served as a firefighter at Station 30 in Dallas. Harris was not a volunteer firefighter for West but responded when he heard news of the fire that broke out Wednesday night at the plant, the statement read. Harris, 52, was a father of three grown sons.

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

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency were at the scene of the plant explosion that left an unknown number of people dead, said McLennan County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Matt Cawthon in a briefing at about 3:30 p.m.

The agencies were at the scene testing the air quality in response to ammonium nitrate found at the scene, the deputy said.

"We have the TCEQ and EPA going in now to determine how dangerous it is for first responders," he said.

While authorities once again confirmed there were casualties from the Wednesday explosion, they stated they were not ready to give an estimate on the number of dead and injured.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also spoke at the afternoon briefing. He expressed his support for first responders and the residents whose families were "were literally torn apart in an instant."

"These are tough Texans," he said. "These people who were affected by this blast, they're up to dealing with this challenge."

Abbott also warned businesses not to use the tragedy as a price gouging opportunity.

The number of those trapped inside rubble from the explosion is still unknown, said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton in a briefing just after 8 a.m. He described the process as "slow and methodical." Some of the buildings are structurally unsound and must be reinforced before emergency crews can enter. 

"We're using every available resource we have to do that correct so we don't miss anything or anyone," Swanton said. "It is tedious, it is time consuming, it is a very methodical process they are doing."

In addition to search and rescue teams provided by the state, squads from Fort Hood and Burleson are assisting in finding any trapped residents, the sergeant said. 

Swanton said he felt "pretty comfortable" estimating the amount of fatalities at between five and 15 and the number of injured at more than 160. He did not say how many residents are unaccounted for. 

"There is a significant area around the fertilizer plant that has been destroyed," Swanton said. "Homes have been destroyed; homes have been flattened; part of that community is gone."

Two women and a man injured in the blast were taken to JPS Health Network in Fort Worth. Another couple suffered shrapnel injuries despite being two miles from the blast. They're being treated at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, officials said. 

Swanton did confirm that there are firefighters unaccounted for. He was unsure of how many.

The sergeant reported that one of the missing firefighters, who also serves as a law enforcement officer, was found in a hospital with serious injuries. The volunteer firefigthers were reported missing after responding to the fire reported at the plant before the explosion.

At 4:15 a.m., West, Texas EMS director Dr. George Smith confirmed that two paramedics lost their lives in Tuesday night's explosion at West Fertilizer Company.

A Facebook page was established in memory of several firefighters who reportedly perished in the blast.

The blast happened around 8 p.m. at the West Fertilizer plant at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, about a half-mile east of Interstate 35.

Shortly before 10 p.m., a dispatcher was advising emergency crews to move away from the burning plant due to concern about chemicals in unexploded tanks.

A few minutes later, WFAA's Todd Unger reported hearing more explosions north of the plant. While the incident is classified as a crime scene, Swanton said investigators had found no evidence of anything criminal causing the explosion. 

He said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is at the scene to conduct that part of the investigation.

Swanton added that teams continued going door-to-door Wednesday morning looking for anyone who might be injured or trapped.

The initial fire call at the fertilizer plant was logged at 7:29 p.m. Twenty-four minutes later -- as firefighters, police and paramedics were evacuating nearby residents -- there was a devastating explosion.

At the 8 a.m. briefing, Swanton said the fires at the plant and homes continued to smolder but were not out of control.

The explosion was so large the U.S. Geological Survey classified it as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.

According to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the plant worked with anhydrous ammonia, a colorless gas. While the facility is known as a plant to those who live in the area, it's actually a fertilizer chemical storage facility. No fertilizer is actually made at the site.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said half the town was evacuated –– if the wind shifts to the north, Wilson feared the other half would need to leave as well. 

"There still are other ingredients there on the facility so we don't want that to explode again," the trooper said in the early morning hours on Thursday. "We're worried about people, not property."

Wilson's fear never came to fruition. By 10 a.m., Swanton said the weather had calmed and there was no more risk.

He said at least 50 to 75 homes had been damaged, and that an apartment complex with 50 units was "just a skeleton standing up."

Wilson said the damage was massive. "Just like Iraq; just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City."

Hillcrest Baptist Hospital in Waco treated about 94 patients, said spokesman Glenn Robinson. He estimated about 12 to be critically wounded and the others to have more minor injuries, such as lacerations. He said many patients had already been discharged by 1 a.m. and expected the majority to be allowed to leave by the morning.

Some individuals were still being transported in school buses early Thursday morning.

"That's an encouraging number because that means we've been able to treat and release a great number that we've already seen this evening," Robinson said.

While the outpouring of support from emergency officials was encouraging, Wilson said enough are in the town. 

"We are overflowing with help," he said. "We do not need any more help."

Mayor Tommy Muska said 133 people at a nearby nursing home all had to be evacuated.

"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," said one man who was looking for a lost relative on Willie Nelson Road.

Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson (R-Waco) said he has toured the damaged area and said it looked like a "war zone." He said he's spoken with representatives from Gov. Rick Perry's office and DPS and praised their effort.

A large swath of the small town with a population of 2,800 was damaged. Fearing additional explosions, officials ordered residents to evacuate.

A triage center that was set up at the West High School football field was evacuated because of its proximity to the burning plant. The processing center was moved to the town's community center. 

An information hotline was set up for concerned friends and relatives at 254.202.1100. The line was overwhelmed with calls; if you get a busy signal, keep trying.

"There was a huge shock wave," said Mark Licknovsky who works at the Czech Stop, less than one mile away on Interstate 35. "That's when we knew something was serious."

West Town Council member Cheryl Marak told WFAA the blast killed her pets and confirmed heavy damage at the middle school.

Every house within four blocks of the facility was heavily damaged, according to initial reports.

"I can see heavy smoke here; there are emergency crews everywhere," said WFAA Todd Unger as he arrived in the devastated town. "We're looking at a home and it is a total loss. There are flames shooting up 10-15 feet."

An emergency dispatcher appealed for more help. "I need anybody and everybody," she said.

At least 10 structures were on fire in the town, including a school which is next door to the plant.
Rescue vehicles from North Texas agencies were racing to the scene on I-35.

Schools in West will be closed on Thursday and Friday.

The American Red Cross said teams from Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin will be coordinating with emergency officials in West to provide any needed assistance to town residents who will need help.

Evacuees were being directed to the community center in Abbott, about five miles north of West.
Gov. Rick Perry issued this statement on Wednesday night:

“We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”

The shock wave triggered by the massive explosion was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far away as North Texas.

"I live in Groesbeck," wrote Rayne Sibley on WFAA's Facebook page. "I heard a large boom and my house shook."

Facebook users in Venus, Grandview, Cleburne, Ennis and Ferris also reported feeling the shock wave.

"Shook my doors!" wrote Nancy Procaccini of Combine. "Thought it was earthquake!"

Traffic on I-35 was backed up for miles. As of 10:30 a.m., Texas Department of Public Transportation officials say the freeway is clear.

Area Tom Thumb stores are accepting donations for American Red Cross starting at noon Wednesday and through April 28.

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