The Commerce Journal

April 19, 2013

Plant explosion rattled the landscape like an approaching storm

Fertilizer plant blast was felt, heard more than 50 miles away


CNHI

WEST, Texas — The explosion at a fertilizer plant that rocked this small Texas city shook the earth, shattered windows and blew down doors for miles around. People more than 50 miles away said they felt and heard Wednesday night’s blast.

“It was just a little smoke at first, some flames,” said Dennis Kolar, who was eating dinner with his wife, Linda, in a restaurant about a mile and a half from West Fertilizer Co. Then, “the whole town shook,” as the blast sent embers and debris flying in all directions.

“There were flames shooting into the air, huge mushroom clouds. And there were bodies everywhere, blood,” said Kolar. “A lot of houses were just leveled, some of them burned to the ground.”

The worst part, he said, was “there was nobody to respond.” The emergency workers who typically would be there to help had been called to a fire at the plant before the explosion. In fact, some died in the blast, while others are still missing.

The blast ripped apart buildings including houses, an apartment building, a school and a nursing home. Officials initially reported a death toll up to 15 people, with more than 160 others wounded, but backed away from those estimates Thursday afternoon, refusing to elaborate.

Kolar, 51, said he and his wife tried to help in the aftermath, but they and others were rebuffed by dense smoke and searing chemical fumes. They are now offering a comfort station at their tire and lube shop on the other side of town - showers, a bathroom, a television and barbecue for those who need it.

Audrey Todd was visiting her mother about 10 minutes away, in Ross, Texas, when a neighbor called to tell her about the explosion.

She returned home, taking back ways because the main roads were blocked. She loaded some belongings and drove away, but not before stopping at an overpass to witness a “sea of red and blue” from the emergency lights of fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.

Though her home had been spared the initial blast, Todd has since worried about reports of a chemical tank that might be compromised. “If that one blows, it will take the rest of West with it,” she said. “There won’t be anything left.”

Ryan Janek and his family were nearer to the explosion. They’d just settled in for the evening, in their home less than a mile from the plant, when they felt the explosion that Janek at first thought was an approaching storm.

The first waves were like a vibration, or “buzzing,” he said, but what followed seconds later proved far more serious. The back door caved inward, he said. A couple of seconds later, the front door exploded off its hinges. Shock waves blew out east-facing windows, he said, including ones in the children’s play room. Fortunately, his children were in the living room at the time.

The family retreated to the laundry room — the “safe room” in their house — and prayed. “I thought that maybe the house had taken a lightening hit,” said Janek.

He waited a few minutes to walk outside and assess the situation, where he saw several neighbors doing the same. A plume of smoke to the east made it clear it wasn’t a storm that had rocked the house.

Janek took his family to his brother’s house a few miles away. He and his brother, a Dallas firefighter, then returned to the West community center with generators and gasoline to help provide power in  case of an outage.

“We’re very blessed,” he said. “You just don’t know if your house was a couple of blocks closer, what the outcome would be. … We’re very fortunate our little ones are running around this morning.”

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Details for this story were reported by the Corsicana Daily Sun, the Cleburne Times Review and The Associated Press.