Training Could Avert Another Fertilizer Plant Disaster

A year ago, a fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas, killed 15 people and wounded 160. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reflects on how to avoid a future catastrophe.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This week is the one-year anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, most of them volunteer firemen in the little town of West, Texas. More than 160 people were hurt by the massive blast, which caused $100 million in damage to the surrounding neighborhoods. I went to West, both in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and then again last month to see how the recovery was coming along. West is a mostly Czech community famous for its delicious pastries called Kolaches. Travelers making the dreary 200-mile drive between Dallas and Austin often make a quick, Kolache pit-stop in West as a reward for making it that far.

On April 17, 2013, people jumped into their cars and followed the fire engines screaming through town. As the volunteer firefighters unrolled their hoses, the West fertilizer plant blazed in the evening sun, yellow flames shooting into the sky. It occurred to almost nobody that they could be in danger, except one man. Capt. Kenneth Harris Jr. was a 31-year veteran of the Dallas Fire Department, but Harris lived in West. And that terrible day, he and a friend rushed to the fertilizer plant to help. A highly trained professional, Harris immediately understood the situation was critical.

He jumped out of his truck and told his friend to drive as far and as fast as he could. Then, Harris ran toward the fire and warned the volunteers they had to get out. They'd just begun their retreat when the plant exploded. They were killed instantly and so was Captain Harris. This past Monday, a group of Texas legislators began meeting to discuss what, if any, new regulations the state might pass to prevent a similar catastrophe. Texas has one of the most conservative and regulation-adverse legislators in the country so the odds of passing expansive new laws are slim.

What is politically feasible are new laws requiring better public disclosure by fertilizer and chemical plants about what exactly is going on inside their facilities. Nothing is guaranteed to pass, but it would honor the brave men of West and the heroic Capt. Harris if Texas would better inform and train their volunteer firemen so that the next time they face a situation like the West fertilizer plant, it won't be such a route. You're listening to NPR news.

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