Massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX

A fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire and exploded last night. According to one eyewitness, "Every house within about four blocks is blown apart." The small town is north of Waco, and the early details are horrifying, including the collapse of a crowded nursing home. People reported hearing the explosion 45 miles away. The tweets have more detail, as does this MeFi thread. A sense of the size of the explosion can be garnered from this video.
Discuss

72 Responses to “Massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX”

  1. Stefan Jones says:

    Sheesh . . . I hope the reports of 60 – 70 dead are just early-report exaggerations and distortions.

    I know there have been disasterous industrial accidents in the past, but you think of them being a thing of the past as well. 

    • bzishi says:

      Most industrial plants are located far away from residential areas. This plant was almost directly adjacent to housing. Doing a quick check, it looks like the big tank at the plant was only about 100 meters from an apartment building.

      https://maps.google.com/maps?q=31.816,-97.088&ll=31.816022,-97.087984&spn=0.006929,0.013937&t=h&z=17

      • chgoliz says:

         Zoning is one of those evil government things.  I’ve heard Texans I work with proudly extol the virtues (for business) of little-to-no zoning restrictions.

        • niktemadur says:

          Unsurprising, completely predictable even, in fact inevitable in retrospect, that cartoony Texans would proudly extol such virtues.
          We know what they’re gonna think before they think it, so yeah, Tejanos have about as much depth as cartoon characters.

          • Amy Ruth says:

            im so sorry that you think that, but that was the heart of Texas, I grew up around there. 20 min to be exact. i know people there. you must understand what is happening before you speak as your ignorance directly shows you do not understand the depth of this tragedy. instead of bashing, pray.

          • and you have about as much compassion as a rock.

          • Jason Galyon says:

            so are your nostrils flaring even now or maybe they didn’t at all… I hear most with black, murderous hearts don’t even get irate when they hate.  You did however seem to be too enraged to include things like ‘rednecks’ and other such comments, perhaps throw in some stuff about inbreeding.
            One is the ULTIMATE fool when hating on folks in tragedies that claims their hate is from injustice.

    • ffabian says:

      In 2000 in Enschede, Netherlands a fireworks storage/plant caught fire and exploded. The situation was quite similar. 

      2000 homes damaged or destroyed, 23 dead 947 injured. The blast was heard 60km from the scene. 1250 people homeless. Damage was estimated half a billion Euros.

      wiki:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enschede_fireworks_disaster

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnDMhz2sQvo

    • Nimdae says:

       I’ve seen the 60-70 number floating around, but I don’t know where it came from. Considering NBCDFW is refusing to give any death toll numbers (oh hey, responsible reporting?) seems to indicate it’s not credible. Not saying it’s not correct, but that we don’t know.

      • NatWu says:

        The figure is probably not correct, but it came from (approximately) “director of EMS”, which I’m thinking is the company, not the guy who’s in charge of all emergency medical services. But that’s possible too. The news articles were vague and it seems that a lot of the reporters talking about it are completely unfamiliar with everything in the area.

        But yeah, it’s far too early to know how many dead there are.

      • The number came from a Doctor on the scene who was being interviewed by local television. Thankfully the number was way off.

        edit: the number was made public by said doctor (i was watching the coverage)

    • SumAnon says:

       There were fire-fighters and personnel still at the site when it exploded :(

  2. A redditor found this.

    A giant explosion occurs during the loading of fertilizer onto the freighter Grandcamp at a pier in Texas City, Texas, on this day in 1947. Nearly 600 people lost their lives and thousands were injured when the ship was literally blown to bits.

  3. Geoduck says:

    The staff at the nursing home is being quoted as saying they evacuated everyone safely.

  4. igpajo says:

    The unedited version of that video is even more frightening because the guy had kids in the car and one of them starts screaming that he can’t hear, get out of here Dad, please.   Why in the world would you sit and watch a fire at a fertilizer plant.   So scary.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROrpKx3aIjA&feature=youtu.be

    • ffabian says:

      Christ, what an arsehole.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      The woman who’s interviewed in the news articles reports that she saw a lot of smoke, so she got in her car and drove toward it to get a better look. What’s up with that?

      • penguinchris says:

        Seems a very Texas thing to do, to hop in your car to get a closer look at something without a second thought. Not to imply anything extra-negative about Texans, but that sort of thought process is a bit different in more densely populated areas (people will still try to get a closer look, but less likely to go out of their way to use a vehicle to get closer, I think).

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          Even if you weren’t concerned for your own safety, it seems thoughtless to clog up the roads when there’s an obvious need for emergency vehicles to get through.

          • Chesterfield says:

            You’ve obviously never lived in a town where all the fire fighters are volunteers. It’s especially true in Texas that people will help out in any way they can.
            Feel free to judge these people as thoughtless. I’d rather think of them as caring.

          • Priscilla Spears says:

            This is true. We have to remember that we come together more during times of tragedy then any other time. I’m sure a lot of people thought they would go down to help.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            I grew up in a town with a volunteer fire department, and she said nothing about helping. She was just a looky-loo.

    • Scott Slemmons says:

      I get the impression that the Internet is going to be a huge fucking pain in the ass today, thanks to all the pontificating, moralizing fucks who want to say a lot of horrible, sneering, sociopathic shit about the West fire/explosion.

  5. PhasmaFelis says:

    The contrast in tone between this article (horrifying tragedy) and the one about the Iran earthquakes (34 people are dead, but the important thing is that plate tectonics are awesome!) is interesting.

    • ffabian says:

      They’re the enemy! Don’t let their propaganda stop you from waving your flag!

      • As the author of that earlier post, I’d like to address this. My choice to talk about the science of the earthquakes in the same post as the deaths of people had nothing to do with some “they’re the enemy!” flag-waving response. 

        Almost all of my posts, as the science editor, end up discussing science. When I’m writing about breaking news, I’m usually writing about the science behind that headline. My first posts on the Boston Marathon bombings were links to stories about bomb chemistry and forensics, which I’m pretty sure I called fascinating. With any luck, I’ll be posting a piece later today about why fertilizer explodes and the interesting fact that fire + ammonium nitrate doesn’t necessarily equal explosion. 

        The difference between those posts and the one about the Iranian earthquakes is that you’ve seen posts by other editors on this site about the same events before you see mine. In the case of the earthquakes, I was trying to combine the fact that real people had died, and draw attention to that, while also telling you the science. There hadn’t been an earlier post to build off of. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the people. In fact, that is why I chose to highlight that in the headline. It just means that my job is science, and I tend to look for the science in any story. 

    • jacklaughing says:

       I don’t know. What do you think is more important to people in Iran? The 34 dead there or the 70-100 dead here? News is relative to geography and context, and devastation caused by natural disasters is honestly less horrifying and disturbing than devastation caused by completely man-made circumstances. An earthquake is an unavoidable, unpredictable tragedy. This plant explosion was both completely avoidable and likely predictable.

      • Ian McLoud says:

        Dallas Morning News: 
        West fertilizer plant said in report that it presented no risk.
        http://www.dallasnews.com/news/state/headlines/20130417-west-fertilizer-plant-said-in-report-that-it-presented-no-risk.ece

        The author of that article also reports: 
        @RandyLeeLoftis – OSHA online records show no federal inspections of #West Fertilizer Co. in the past 5 yrs

        • pacbeller says:

           So, the plant inspected itself, and after reviewing itself, it declared itself safe?

          http://www.dallasnews.com/news/state/headlines/20130417-west-fertilizer-plant-said-in-report-that-it-presented-no-risk.ece

        • Cowicide says:

          OSHA online records show no federal inspections of #West Fertilizer Co. in the past 5 yrs

          Who needs terrorists when you have anti-regulation conservatives and libertarians around?

          Then again, I guess we’ll hear about reports of “dark-skinned” fellas that were seen running from a dangerous explosion and fire instead…

          • carlogesualdodivenosa says:

            I guess we’ll hear about reports of “dark-skinned” fellas that were seen running

            Closely followed by accusations that it’s a false flag operation by the FBI.

          • NatWu says:

            Texan conservatives are, in general, anti-federal government, not anti-state government. Nor are they libertarians in the sense that libertarians mean by any stretch of the imagination. The problem is that most Texas conservatives assume that A) there are state regulations on the books which serve to prevent this kind of thing, and B) businesses surely would not be negligent because it’s against their best interests. 

            This post explains the idea of “Federalist libertarianism”: http://www.popehat.com/2010/06/22/civil-libertarianism-vs-federalist-libertarianism-in-texas/. “Every tribe has its mores and customs. Federalist libertarians believe that liberty necessarily includes the right to impose those mores and customs upon their immediate neighbors without interference. They view it as an intolerable infringement of liberty that some federal court could prevent them from doing so upon the theory that their neighbors had some higher protected liberty they are bound to respect. Federalist libertarians celebrate the liberty of Mrs. Grundy.”

          • Cowicide says:

            The problem is that most Texas conservatives assume that A) there are state regulations on the books which serve to prevent this kind of thing, and B) businesses surely would not be negligent because it’s against their best interests.

            You just proved my point. The rest of your post is pedantic and trying to argue trite semantics which I have no interest in doing with you.

        • Aram Jahn says:

          Well, allowing Feds to inspect a Bidniss concern in Texas…is communism, obviously.

  6. Nimdae says:

    I travel through West whenever I go to Austin from Dallas. Big Czech heritage and is well known for its kolaches.

    State trooper released some preliminary numbers but refused to give a death toll. Any numbers given about deaths up to this point should be ignored because no one knows for sure. The state trooper stated that additional sweeps are being done as various areas are declared safe for searching, and they are still going door to door.

    A nursing home was nearby. No information on injured, but all survived and were evacuated.

    Injured is estimated over 100. 50-75 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. Fires are under control and the risk of further explosions are assumed minimal.

    Mayor noted that the entire West Fire Department (6 members) is unaccounted for.  It’s a community that depends heavily on volunteer firefighters. Mayor is a member of the volunteer firefighter group and was on his way to the fire, ending up 1 block away when the explosion occurred.

    They are stating repeatedly that they have more than enough help and that people wanting to volunteer help should not as they are likely to get in the way, and there is a concern about air quality.

    There’s an image circulating with a massive mushroom cloud. A couple notable features in the image are a white park bench and an unrealistically large mushroom cloud. It’s sometimes titled calling it a power plant explosion. This image is completely fake and should not be reposted.

  7. legsmalone says:

    Waco is certainly not West Texas.

  8. gwailo_joe says:

    Capturing flaming depots of explosives: when ‘this seems far enough’…isn’t.

    That is one hell of an explosion: hope that amateur videographer (and his for chrissake kids) escaped with nothing more than some ringing in the ears and a healthy respect for burning fertilizer plants…

    I forgive the impulse: outside fires are interesting…and provided one stays up-wind, usually not that dangerous. Depending, of course, on what is actually on fire…

    I hope most folks hit the road before the blast; but I feel for the first responders…who I’m sure had to have gone over hazard assessment of their area many, many times: “Guys, if this thing catches…we’re fucked.”

    But when the call comes in ‘smoke showing’: you gotta go. 

    Prayers to all. Hoping casualties are minimal. Respect to the fallen.

    • peregrinus says:

      Witness Debby Marak told the Associated Press news agency that she had seen smoke coming from the area near the plant and had driven over to see what was happening.
      She said that when she arrived, two boys ran towards her screaming that the authorities had told them to leave because the fertiliser plant was going to explode.

      They knew they were fucked, poor souls.
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22195495

  9. pacbeller says:

    I have been looking at the Google Satellite view of the town, and I’m really puzzled. There appears to be a large retirement home, apartments, houses, a Jr. High and a High School, all within about 500 Meters of the fertilizer plant. I’m going to assume that the fertilizer plant was there first, just judging from the look of the buildings, which look older than the surrounding buildings. So, what happened to lead the city fathers to build such facilities as schools and retirement homes and hospitals, filled with people who are more vulnerable than the average adult, so close to a fertilizer plant? This is not an attempt to belittle or make snark at the unfortunate residents of the town, Deities help and save them. I’m just wondering, was it considered so safe that no one thought twice about putting schools or a hospital within a half click of the plant? Was it accident-free for so long that no one considered it any sort of hazard? Is there no agency of the city, county or state that might have said, “Wait a minute…that might be a problem?” Maybe, I don’t know, a zoning board? EPA? OSHA? As far as living there, would it smell bad on hot days or something? And if it smelled like ammonia or raw wet fertilizer, is that really where you’d want to place your town hospital and schools near?

    I once lived near Signal Hill in Los Angeles, a long time ago. Back then, nodding donkeys pumping oil in someones backyard was a common enough sight, and refineries were all around. I remember being told that the natives who lived there referred to the constant stench as “The Smell of Money.” So, I can sort of understand how a cultural norm, consisting of odor tolerance, could happen. I’m just having trouble understanding the idea of building hospitals and schools so close to it. I mean, methane is a hell of a gas, brother. Wouldn’t a fertilizer processing plant mean there was some methane involved?

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

      • pacbeller says:

        I was thinking that folks would demand accountability or something, but then I read the comments on the Dallas Morning News website, in which I read the following:

        “it was the lege that actually cut the volinteer firefighting budget. In favor of “arts” no doubt led by Democrats who want more arts spending. Oh and Perry does go after FEMA money because they take it from us and the concept of FEMA is a legitamate function of government.”
        <<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>

        You’re right, Antinous. Chinatown was also very business-friendly, wasn’t it?

        • NatWu says:

          You know, most of us sane Texans don’t actually comment on the DMN or other news sites because that’s where the ignorant and crazy (and ignorant crazy) people cluster. There’s a good deal more sane talk on Reddit, and I am posting here, after all. 

          However, even if the fertilizer plant was a danger, it was there first. It’s not the plant that built apartments and homes 400 feet away. Somebody is going to have to answer the question of why that was allowed. I honestly am not sure if they have a minimum safe distance from fertilizer plants where building is prohibited, but if it’s that close it’s obviously far too close to be safe.

          • FrankBronson says:

             Its unlikely that there ever was a local rule restricting construction of apartments or nursing homes or schools near plants like this, or vice versa. Its Texas.

          • NatWu says:

            Look, can you please not say things like that? This is a tiny town and I’m sure Texas is not the only state where small towns do stupid things. I did read on one news site that someone familiar with the laws said there is such a distance regulation, but obviously exceptions had been allowed in the town.

          • FrankBronson says:

            I stand by my comment, based on years of living and working in Houston, Odessa, Crane, Monahans and Midland, and upon years of doing business in Dallas, Fort Worth, Tyler and El Paso. In Texas, the wealthy control even tiny towns and cities far more than any other places I have lived or worked or done business. When regulation gets in the way of profit and power in Texas, well regulation be damned. And we end up with tragedies like this.

          • pacbeller says:

            “However, even if the fertilizer plant was a danger, it was there first. It’s not the plant that built apartments and homes 400 feet away.”

            Exactly, and I assumed as much, and said so. Much like airports located in residential suburbs, the houses sprang up around the already-built airport. So, I assume they knew going in that planes were going to fly over their house when they bought it, and their bitching about it rings pretty hollow.

            What I was wondering was the number of civic or semi-civic structures clustered around and nearby. The civic leaders, the school board, the hospital board, what were their assumptions, and how did they reach them? Most people posting seem to be of a mind that Fertilizer Processing Plant = Explosive Possibilities. But schools and hospitals were placed quite near it. Did the people there have reason to believe differently?

            But for now, after reading further news reports (and staying far away from the Comments section of the DMN) I’m assuming that nobody in the community ever thought the plant could produce such calamity.

          • NatWu says:

            “Did the people there have reason to believe differently?” 

            http://boingboing.net/2013/04/18/ammonium-nitrate-fertilizer-is.html

            “Despite a history of high-profile explosions, like the one that happened last night, ammonium nitrate isn’t considered to be that big of a danger. In fact, Oxley called it a “marginal explosive” — a chemical that is mostly safe, but can become dangerous when the conditions are just right.”

            Based on the articles I’ve read so far, it appears that main danger they were worried about was the anhydrous ammonia, not the ammonium nitrate. I don’t think there’s a reason they should have been that close, but at the same time, the chances of something like this happening are extremely remote, re: “A couple of years ago, she put together a list of ammonium nitrate accidents that had happened around the world — usually in factories, or during shipping. There are 24 cases on the list that involved fire. Of those, in only 11 cases did the event go from fire to detonation.”

            There are people, obviously, who are aware that this can happen. At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to assume that fertilizer is perfectly safe since incidents like this are so rare. It just happens to be the case that when something goes wrong, it has the potential to be extremely deadly. 

            I’m not arguing with you, just saying that hindsight is always 20/20. I live next to an airport. I would hope that if a plane crashed and it just happened to kill me and 100 people in my apartments, people online wouldn’t immediately jump in and call us idiots because we assumed that something which is very rare wouldn’t happen to us, even though it could be very dangerous if it did. 

      • niktemadur says:

        Business before people.  The profit organism must be fed at all costs, even safety costs, the individual is but an expendable cell.

    • FrankBronson says:

       Texans dont much cotton to regulation or to zoning.

      • Pasketti says:

        Smaller towns tend to have fewer zoning regulations.  Some don’t have any at all.

        This is not a Texas phenomenon.

        West has a population of 2800, so the regulations are probably nonexistent.

  10. jpgsawyer says:

    The BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22195495 report suggests that the explosion was caused by ammonia.

    If there was a large amount of ammonia in a tank onsite my bet would be on a boiling liquid vapour explosion (Bleve – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_liquid_expanding_vapor_explosion ) which  would explain the size of the explosion.

    • Boris Bartlog says:

       Not really, no. The energy in even a very large BLEVE is not sufficient by itself to cause an explosion of this size. However, if the substance in question was really anhydrous ammonia and not some form of ammonium nitrate, then it seems that the explosion would have had to be a two-stage affair: first a BLEVE to blast the ammonia into the atmosphere, and then a massive fuel-air explosion after the superheated ammonia had mixed with the oxidizer (air). Anhydrous ammonia that isn’t mixed with anything else can’t explode chemically, even at elevated temperatures.
      Anyway, I’ve never heard of an anhydrous ammonia explosion like this. Ammonium nitrate, sure. But this may actually be something new.

      • jpgsawyer says:

        Fair enough, not sure you can say No.. just no when you go on to say “first there would be a bleve”…..

        Anyway I did have in mind that following the bleve there would be a fuel-air-explosion. I guess I always thought though that the bleve would be the most energetic of the two,

  11. Geoduck says:

    If that were a serious concern, you’d be hearing about it everywhere, not just on a tumblr page.

  12. Nimdae says:

     I never saw nor heard such announcement here in Dallas. Yes, they were worried about air quality north of the incident, but not this far north.

  13. A woman I work with lost her house in the explosion. Says the roof was blown off then burned. Thankfully the family is okay.

  14. the dallas area is 75 miles north with very little population between save for Hillsboro (pop 8,500) on East I-35 and Itasca (pop 1,600) on West I-35

  15. marilove says:

    Why in the world would you use some random tumblr page as proof of anything at all?! Sigh … it’s just sad, really.

  16. how many more bltantly fake images and stories are you going to keep buying? it’s fake! How can you not see this?

  17. fredges says:

    Well, thank God they had their guns to protect them!

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