The Town That Blew Up

The explosion at West, Texas, is the worst industrial accident in recent American history. What really happened?

By Drake Bennett


David Pratka and Kenneth Luckey Harris Jr. met in 2005, through their wives, and quickly became close friends. Both lived in West, Texas—Harris several miles out in the country—and both loved music, if not always the same kind. Pratka, a computer technician, was a devotee of the wry, spare aesthetic of Texas country, and disdainful of the bubble-gum bombast of Nashville. Harris, a captain in the Dallas fire department who went by his middle name, was more of an equal-opportunity enthusiast. Both men played bass guitar. Harris hadn’t performed in years, but so long as he wasn’t on duty, he and his wife would be there when Pratka’s band, Spivey Crossing, played local festivals and bars.

On April 17 they were at Pratka’s house, a single-story, brick four-bedroom in town. The 41-year-old Pratka had recently set up a makeshift studio in the detached garage out back, and Harris, 52, had brought over his nieces so Pratka could record them singing duets. Harris grilled hamburgers on the back porch, taking breaks to poke his head into the studio to listen for a few minutes. Strongly built and balding, with a trim fireman’s moustache, he’d come straight from work and was still wearing his navy blue Dallas fire department T-shirt and baseball cap.

Around 7:20, while much of the country watched coverage of the hunt for the second Boston bombing suspect, everyone sat down for dinner. Fifteen minutes later, Pratka’s older son, Conner, burst into the house, short of breath. The 9-year-old had been sent on an errand to his grandparents’, a few blocks away, and biking over, he had seen smoke, lots of it, coming from the local feed and fertilizer plant just across the railroad tracks. He had warned his grandparents, then sprinted home.

In West, nothing is far from anything else. Drive east from the interstate that marks the western edge of town, and in six blocks you’re at the train tracks. Two blocks farther, farmland resumes. When the West Fertilizer Co. plant was built in 1962, it was north of town, surrounded by the farms and ranches it supplied. Over the decades, though, West crept toward it. Today the plant is neighbored by two schools and, across a small park to its west, a two-story apartment complex. On the other side of the apartment block is the local nursing home, West Rest Haven, and stretching away to the north and south are some of the bigger homes in town.

Everyone at Pratka’s house rushed to the yard, where the black column of smoke was impossible to miss. Approaching sirens were audible. Harris told Pratka to get his keys so they could take a closer look. It took barely a minute for the two of them, with Conner, to drive over to the apartment complex in Pratka’s white Ford Explorer. As they pulled up at the end of the alley between the building and the park, with its basketball hoops and playground, they could see flames towering over the plant.

Harris had fought chemical and industrial fires often in his 31 years as a firefighter and, seeing the size of the blaze, said he wanted to make sure the local volunteers knew what they were up against. The plant often stored significant quantities of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive solid fertilizer, but Harris was primarily concerned about fumes from anhydrous ammonia, a liquefied gas fertilizer kept at the plant in pressurized tanks. Anhydrous ammonia is toxic when inhaled. “Go home,” Harris told Pratka. “And if you start smelling things y’all get out of town.” Then he climbed the railroad embankment that separated the park from the plant, crossed the tracks, and dropped out of sight.

Until this spring, West was known to Texans mainly as a culinary destination. The town is 80 miles south of Dallas, near midway on the drive to Austin. For decades travelers would pull off I-35 when they reached West for kolaches, a Czech stuffed pastry available in either sweet or savory varieties; the town is to Texas kolaches as Coney Island is to New York hot dogs. Some of the earliest settlers were Czech immigrants who had come to the area for the cheap plots of fertile blackland prairie. Many of their descendants still live there, and residents cite their strong Czech identity as the source of a solidarity notable even for small-town Texas.

West was also notorious for disaster. In 1896 a passenger agent for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad named William G. Crush decided to stage a train wreck as a publicity stunt a few miles outside West. Crush built a four-mile-long railroad siding, along with a grandstand, telegraph offices to broadcast the event, and a restaurant under a circus tent he borrowed from Ringling Brothers. Newspapers nationwide covered the preparations. Late in the afternoon of Sept. 15, in front of a crowd of 30,000, two unmanned engines towing boxcars full of railroad ties smashed into each other at more than 45 miles per hour. Seconds later, both engines’ boilers unexpectedly exploded. The spectators had been positioned at what organizers felt was a safe distance, but bolts, wheels, spokes, and gears raked the crowd. Accounts differ, but two or three people were killed, with several more seriously injured. Scott Joplin commemorated the carnage with the Great Crush Collision March.

Around the same time, ammonium nitrate—two nitrogen atoms, four hydrogen, three oxygen—was being adopted as a component in blasting agents. Alfred Nobel, his fortune already made from dynamite, began mixing ammonium nitrate with nitroglycerin to form a cheaper, less volatile explosive he called “extra dynamite.” An explosion, like a fire, requires both fuel and an oxidizer to react with it, and ammonium nitrate is a particularly good oxidizer. When ignited, its densely packed oxygen atoms are released and feed back into the fire, engorging it and helping set off the near-instantaneous cascade by which a ball of flame (a deflagration, in the technical language) turns into a detonation. In the same moment, the rest of the molecule also decomposes into gases—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor—expanding violently outward and adding force to the shock wave.

It’s not easy to detonate ammonium nitrate, but when it blows, it can be devastating. The perfect combination of pressure and shock, the right “insult,” as chemists call it, is needed to set it off. In 1921, at a BASF chemical plant in the German town of Oppau, workers trying to jar loose clumps of an ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate mixture compacted at the bottom of a giant silo blasted it with dynamite—a common practice at the time—and set off an explosion that destroyed the town and killed almost 600 people. In 1947 a docked cargo ship carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire in the port of Texas City, Tex. After the hold was sealed in an attempt to stifle the blaze, the ship exploded, setting off a chain reaction of blasts and fires that leveled the entire port and knocked two planes out of the air. At least 581 people died in what remains the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.

While ammonium nitrate is now better known as a fertilizer—without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers it has been estimated that the earth could feed only 3.5 billion people, or half its current population—it continues to be used widely as a component in blasting agents for mining and construction. It’s also used by terrorists. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh mixed ammonium nitrate with racing fuel to make a bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

Today the term “fertilizer plant” can mean two things. There are production facilities: factories where fertilizer is synthesized from feedstock such as potash ore or phosphate rock. In the case of nitrogen fertilizers, that feedstock is natural gas, which provides the hydrogen for atmospheric nitrogen to bond with and form ammonia. These days the North American nitrogen fertilizer business is enjoying an unexpected renaissance—fracking has made the U.S. a leading producer of natural gas, and more than three dozen new nitrogen fertilizer production facilities are in the works.

Then there are retail plants. These are inspected far less frequently than production plants, and because they tend to be much smaller, fewer regulations apply. No one tracks the number of retail facilities in operation; the Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, estimates there are around 6,000 nationwide. Many are owned by the same multinational giants such as Agrium or CF Industries that own production facilities. Others are family-run. West’s fertilizer plant was one of the latter. It’s been owned since 2004 by Adair Grain. Don and Wanda Adair are great-grandparents with a farm outside West. They are members of the West Church of Christ, and for years Wanda wrote a column for the local paper entitled “West Happenings.” (The Adairs declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Many of the town’s 2,800 residents were at least part-time farmers, and Adair Grain tried to be a one-stop shop for them. Eight employees worked on the fertilizer side, five on the grain side—the plant stored seed and cattle feed in three metal silos at the north end of the complex and sold farm equipment out of a store beside the fertilizer storage building. Customers describe a facility that was functional, though decidedly not state-of-the-art. The ammonium nitrate, potash, weed killer, and other components were stored in bins separated by wooden dividers under a 60-foot-tall, slant-roofed, wooden silo originally built to hold seeds. The ammonium nitrate was in the form of tiny white beads called prills that look like the filling of a bean bag. “Most of the stuff that was there was what you buy every day at Home Depot to fertilize your yard,” says Tom Marek, the West EMS supervisor, who had been at the plant three weeks before the fire to get fertilizer for his farm. The plant would customize each blend. A farmer or rancher would tell Cody Dragoo, the foreman, what he was growing, and Dragoo would go into the fertilizer building, get in a Bobcat loader, and scoop the appropriate ingredients from the bins into a rotating drum mixer.

As Luckey Harris walked toward the plume on April 17, three fire trucks and an ambulance were pulling up to the plant. Coil and April Conaway, married young paramedics, were in the ambulance. George Nors Sr., the fire chief and longest-serving member of the department, drove the tanker truck. One of the department’s youngest members, 29-year-old Joey Pustejovsky, the West city secretary, was there, as were the Snokhous brothers, Robert and Doug, second-generation firefighters who never missed a call. Morris Bridges, a sprinkler technician, had only recently joined the department, while Emmanuel Mitchell and David Maler, the local constable, were veterans. Jimmy and Kenneth Matus, two cousins, weren’t firefighters but lived nearby—Jimmy’s company had built the department’s fire trucks—and both showed up to see if they could help.

News of the fire reached the plant’s owners at Wednesday night church services. According to a Dallas Morning News story, fellow worshipers recall Wanda Adair answering her phone and crying “Oh, no!” before the couple rushed out of the church. The Church of Christ is at the southern end of town but still less than two miles from the plant, and the two would have reached it in five minutes if they weren’t stopped by a police officer turning back the growing stream of gawkers. According to the paper, Don told the officer, “You got to get those firemen out of there.”

At around the same time, the town’s mayor, Tommy Muska, walked up to the roadblock. A volunteer firefighter, he had seen the smoke from his home, a half-mile away. He’d pulled on his bunker gear—heavy protective pants and jacket, boots, and a wide-brimmed helmet—and driven straight over, parking his aging brown pickup in the nearby high school parking lot.

Robert Payne came straight from home in his bunker gear, too. Payne’s recollection of the next few minutes is dreamlike, he says, and patchy. He remembers that he came up to a group of firefighters putting water on the fire from the large red pumper truck—men he knew as well as anyone else but whose faces now are blurred in his memory. He remembers saying it would be good if Dragoo, a fellow firefighter, was there and being told he was.

Already, though, it was clear to everyone there that they were overmatched. The plant was just beyond the city limits, so the nearest fire hydrant was 2,500 feet from the burning building, and the thick, black smoke was potentially full of toxic chemicals. “It wasn’t that we were thinking about an explosion,” Payne says. “It was that with the water we had we weren’t going to be able to take care of this fire.” The decision was made to pull back and wait for the reinforcements already on the way from neighboring towns.

Payne began to walk from the big red pumper to a smaller truck, an oversize pickup with a water tank and hose reel on back that the department used on brush fires. It was parked just north of the fire, maybe 100 feet away. The last thing Payne remembers is zipping up his bunker coat as he walked, fumbling a bit because of his heavy gloves.

That night, there were 50 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate in the dry fertilizer building—far less than the 270 tons the plant had reported to state regulators a year earlier. There were also 100 tons of it in a railroad car waiting to be unloaded on the siding outside. As the fertilizer burned, it set a fierce feedback loop in motion. The released oxygen fed the fire, and the exhaust rose to the top of the slant-roofed silo. Unable to escape, the cocktail of gases crammed in tighter and tighter, and the pressure built. All that was missing was a detonator.

At 7:51, 13 minutes after the first firefighters arrived and just as they were getting ready to fall back, the flames eating away at the walls of the silo weakened it enough that a portion of the structure collapsed, according to investigators at the Texas fire marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The falling roof slammed into the gases pooled under it, compacting them like a piston and jolting the burning fertilizer. That shock triggered a small explosion, which, flashing through the compressed gas and the pile of ammonium nitrate, milliseconds later triggered the far larger one. Muska was a block and a half away when the plant exploded, by West High School. “My hat came off first, and then I heard it. Then I immediately felt it,” he says. “You could almost see the concussion coming, a wave of air. Of course, I saw the mushroom cloud.”

In total, somewhere between 28 and 34 tons of the ammonium nitrate exploded in a blast equivalent to 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, leaving a crater 93 feet across and 10 feet deep. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded an earthquake measuring 2.1 on the Richter scale. It damaged buildings over a 37-block area, hurled metal shrapnel for miles in every direction, and left both the high school and the intermediate school ablaze. Chunks of concrete fell from the sky like cartoon anvils, through smoke and clouds of shredded insulation sucked out of attics by the shock wave. According to Parnell McNamara, the county sheriff, a rancher called in afterward to say a giant disc of steel had landed in his corral, more than two miles from the plant. “It caught the air just right,” McNamara says, “and went and went and went.”

The blast smashed the apartment complex and killed two of its residents. Buildings a mile away lost windows and had garage doors punched in. Cars crumpled as the blast wave went over, and their airbags deployed. At the Pratkas’ house, 1,400 feet from the epicenter, the trusses holding the roof broke and the ceiling fell in, dropping light fixtures to the floor. The doors imploded, and siding and bricks were torn off. Nearly every glass object in the house shattered, spraying shards. Nearby, people unlucky enough to have been looking through their windows were blinded. A firefighter’s leg was later found in a tree several hundred feet from the plant.

The damage might have been worse. The railroad embankment deflected the energy of the explosion upward—the rails themselves were blown to within a couple inches of each other. And much of the ammonium nitrate at the plant did not explode: The boxcar waiting to be unloaded was knocked over, but its contents were undisturbed. The tanks of toxic anhydrous ammonia, which stood just south of the dry fertilizer building, survived intact. And the two schools were empty.

West firefighter Kirk Wines was looking straight at the plant when it blew. He was walking toward it, maybe 200 yards away. Before the blast the flames had been tall and concentrated, he recalls; immediately after they were shorter, and everywhere. He turned and saw houses and cars burning behind him and the high school ablaze as well. It took him a moment to wonder why he hadn’t himself been hurt—he still can’t make sense of the physics. He started running toward the plant. Coil Conaway, the EMT, was already tending to the injured—the ambulance had sheltered him and his wife from the blast—and he asked Wines for help. Wines’s legs buckled on his second trip with a stretcher. He went to the roadblock to get more hands, only to be told no one was being allowed in for fear of another blast. “You’ve got some people yelling at you to come help and you’ve got some people yelling at you to get out,” he remembers. “And you just don’t know what to do at that point, you know?”

Police cruisers, fire trucks, and ambulances from as far away as Dallas were flooding in, and town residents in their own cars had come to find friends or loved ones. Wines ended up on a fire engine from a neighboring town—either Ross or Penelope, he thinks—and they made their way over to the apartment block and nursing home to help with the rescue.

By the time they got there, however, the nursing home was empty. George Smith, a local osteopathic physician and the EMS medical director, had gone to the nursing home as soon as he got the call about the fire and told the staff to start moving residents away from the side of the building that faced the plant. “We were trying to get them away from the chemicals,” he says. “We were going to shelter in place—move them away from the fire, shut the air conditioners off.” It never occurred to him that the plant might blow, he says, but his efforts probably saved lives. Smith himself was nearly killed when the building’s ceiling fell in. The blast claimed only one of the nursing home residents, 96-year-old Adolph Lander, who died from his injuries a few hours after being evacuated.

Outside, the only light was from flames and the floodlights of emergency vehicles; the blast had also knocked out power throughout the north end of town. Marek, the EMS supervisor, and Mayor Muska ordered a triage area to be set up under the lights of a football field half a mile southwest of the plant. The wounded, 200 in all, were ferried there in ambulances, private vehicles, and by foot. Marek took charge of the effort to put out the fires in the buildings around the plant, concentrating on the intermediate school. The blast had cracked the town’s waterlines, so water had to be brought in truck by truck. It took 40 tankers and more than three hours.

In the confusion, Kirk Wines didn’t think to check his phone for hours, and when he did he had dozens of missed calls and texts. Several were from his wife and son. Unable to reach him, they had driven to the plant in a panic. Cutting through a field to skirt the roadblock, they arrived within minutes of the blast. Lying amid the wreckage they found Robert Payne. The shock wave had lifted him out of his boots and thrown him 35 feet through the air into the side of a large plastic tank of livestock feed. He was unconscious but alive—the brush truck, which he was standing beside, had provided just enough shelter. The two put him into the back of their pickup and made their way through the debris-strewn streets to the triage center.

It wasn’t until midnight that some of the West firefighters began to regroup at their fire station, and it became clear who was missing. “We weren’t 100 percent sure,” says Wines. They could see whose cars were parked outside, and who still hadn’t checked in, but “there could have been people that had been taken away in a personal vehicle to the doctor. We didn’t know.”

At first light on Thursday, Marek, along with a captain from the McLennan County sheriff’s department, walked the blast site and found the bodies. Most were within a 50-foot radius of each other, and a couple were pinned under a fire truck. Some were identifiable, others were not. Wood and metal fragments, fertilizer, and bits of fencing covered the site in drifts three feet high.

Marek won’t say much about what he saw: Investigators have asked witnesses not to talk to the media. Of the West firefighters, Dragoo, Pustejovsky, the Snokhous brothers, and Bridges were killed, as were four EMT students who had also responded: Perry Calvin, Jerry Chapman, Cyrus Reed, and Kevin Sanders. Buck Uptmor, a contractor and rodeo rider who had been trying to save some horses near the plant, died, as did Jimmy Matus. Luckey Harris was also among the dead. “Everybody knew, but we didn’t know for sure,” says Pratka. “When it came it was tough.”

Marek remained on the site through the day Thursday and into the next night. “Friday morning at 1:40 was when we brought the 12th person out of the blast site, the 12th fatality,” says Marek. “So, after that, I went home and got a couple hours of sleep.”

In the days after the disaster, West was inundated with aid. The Red Cross, the Churches of Christ, evangelist Franklin Graham’s relief organization Samaritan’s Purse—they all sent meals and blankets, portable shelters, medication and nurses, and thousands of volunteers. Among the donations were a truckload of mattresses, two fire trucks—one new, one used—two ambulances, and 100,000 bottles of water. “We have enough water to float a boat,” Muska told a packed town meeting the week after the blast. For most of that first week, Mayor Muska and the town’s mayor pro tem, Steve Vanek, alternated day and night shifts at the command center set up in the local Catholic church.

David Pratka’s family stayed for a few days at his sister-in-law’s house, then a businessman his father-in-law had worked for offered to put them up at a ranch he owned outside town, where they’ve been since. He and his neighbors weren’t able to get back into their houses to see the damage for a week and a half. First the entire area was being treated as a potential crime scene by state and federal investigators, then the houses were being inspected to see which were safe. When the Pratkas returned, all they were able to salvage were a boxful of clothes, some pictures, the family Bible, and their birth certificates. A month ago they had the house demolished—a team from the Texas Baptist Men did it free of charge, as they have 49 other houses in town. Like many others in West, Pratka was underinsured. “I’m going to walk away with $19,000 and an empty lot.”

Pratka is careful to say he’s not complaining, but he sees the attention of the outside world moving on. In early June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined the state’s request to declare the town a major disaster site, denying the city $17 million in federal aid. The Obama administration has already made more than $25 million in federal money available to the town, but the rejection still rankled. “Everybody expects you to work and pay taxes, and then when it comes time to get help, you don’t get help,” Pratka says. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates that property damage alone adds up to $100 million.

Two and a half months later, the cause of the West fire remains officially undetermined. An investigation led by the state fire marshal and the ATF continues. Fire investigation is a subtractive process—investigators cross off potential causes until, ideally, there’s only one left. At this point, the West investigation is down to three. The first is the building’s electrical system. The second is a golf cart; the workers used one to get around the facility, and both electric and gas-powered golf carts have been recalled in recent years for catching fire.

The third option is arson, though no one has been charged, and investigators haven’t suggested how someone might have set the fire. On May 10, Bryce Reed, a former West volunteer paramedic, was arrested and charged with possession of a pipe bomb. In the blast’s aftermath, Reed had made dubious claims to the press about his role in the response and was quickly let go from West EMS. He has strongly denied setting the fire, however, and law enforcement officials, at least on this count, say they believe him. “At this time we can find no connection whatsoever between Bryce Reed, the pipe bomb, and the explosion at West,” Sheriff McNamara says.

Dozen of victims so far have sued Adair Grain. One of them is Morris Bridges’s widow, Carmen. Another is Joshua Zarecor, 34, who was visiting a friend in the apartment complex when the blast went off. He lost one eye and much of the vision in the other, according to his lawyer, and suffered third-degree burns on his face, chest, and arms. The town itself on June 21 filed a lawsuit against both Adair Grain and its supplier, CF Industries, under the rationale that the massive and deep-pocketed fertilizer manufacturer should have inspected the Adair plant for safety before doing business with them. The plant carried only $1million in coverage.

Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair Grain, declined to comment on the lawsuits, and CF Industries released a statement saying that while it is sympathetic to those whose lives were affected by the explosion, “the company should not have been added to this lawsuit.” CF Industries vows to defend itself vigorously in court. Reporters have turned up a history of complaints and regulatory sanctions, instances where the West plant, before and after the Adairs bought it, ran afoul of existing regulations. Most of those, however, had to do with the handling and storage of anhydrous ammonia, a dangerous compound that had nothing to do with the blast.

There are several measures that would have prevented the explosion—or lessened its impact: if the building and the bins that held the fertilizer had been made of something less flammable than wood, if there had been a sprinkler system, if the silo had been vented, if there had been a blast wall around the plant, if schools and houses and apartments had not been built in its shadow, if the first responders who made up most of the casualties had kept their distance. None of those things were required by the regulatory standards and guidelines that govern the fertilizer business. On June 27, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency investigating the blast, testified before the Senate. The investigation, he said, “has not identified any U.S. standards or guidance that prohibit or discourage many of the factors that likely contributed to the West disaster.” In other words, in all the ways the plant proved to be a perfect detonator, it was up to code. “It’s easy to say you’re not in violation of any regulations if you don’t have any regulations,” says Randell Roberts, one of the lawyers suing the plant.

Far beyond West the blast has triggered a familiar debate about government oversight. Texas Governor Rick Perry, in an interview with the Associated Press days after the disaster, said he didn’t think more was necessary. Mayor Muska is less categorical. He declines, as he puts it, to “second guess” past decisions, and he is confident the plant will be rebuilt. “We have to have it for our farmers. They can’t be going to Waxahachie or somewhere to get this stuff.” he says. “Now, will it be newer and better and safer? I bet you it will,” he adds. “I hope that some oversight committee will look at it. It is my hope that the firefighters that we lost won’t be in vain.”

Nonetheless, it required a cascade of coincidences for the blast to go off, and many residents, when they talk about it, focus on that randomness. The explosion left Robert Payne with a broken jaw, a blown eardrum, broken teeth, and cracked ribs on his right side. The funeral home he owns with his brother buried most of the blast’s victims. Sitting in a windowless visiting room there, he says he does not blame the Adairs. He’s known them for a long time. One of their children was in his class at school, and he went to the Cub Scouts with others. Don Adair, his friends insist, only bought the plant to keep it from going out of business and never made much money from it. “I know that the fertilizer plant was a vital part of the agricultural community,” Payne says. “I’m not angry with them at all. It’s the most unfortunate accident.”

With Mike Lee


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