The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

May 15, 2013

Plant explosion: Texas firefighters focused concern on toxic gases

WEST, Texas (AP) — When they saw 30-foot flames licking the sky inside a massive fertilizer plant, firefighters in this tiny Texas town rushed to evacuate nearby buildings and raced to spray water on tanks of chemicals, hoping to prevent a catastrophe.

They didn't know, and probably could not imagine, that the plant would soon explode into a deadly fireball and lay waste to much of the community. Instead, they were more concerned with preventing toxic gas from leaking out of the facility and drifting into nearby homes.

Four weeks after the blinding blast, investigators have yet to announce not only what started the fire and touched off the explosion, but precisely what happened in those frenzied moments before 14 people were killed. They are especially interested in the town's volunteer fire crews, who may not have been fully aware of the dangers they faced. Did they know about the potential for an explosion? Were they trained to prevent one? Should they have acted differently?

"We do not know," said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, one of the federal agencies involved in the investigation. "With interviews still underway, it's difficult to say at this point what was the level of knowledge and what did they know about suppression techniques."

Associated Press interviews with first-responders suggest that firefighters' foremost fear was a poisonous cloud of anhydrous ammonia. But the greater threat turned out to be the plant's vast stockpile of a common fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, which can also serve as a cheap alternative to dynamite.

State and federal agents plan to release some of their findings Thursday after spending the last month investigating whether the blast was an industrial accident or a criminal act.

Last week, the Texas Rangers and county sheriff's office launched their own criminal investigation, the same day a paramedic who helped evacuate residents was arrested on a charge of possessing a destructive device. The paramedic has not been accused of wrongdoing in connection to the April 17 blast.

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