West explosion; Were volunteer responders warned of the risks?

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on April 22, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Updated Monday, Apr 22 at 11:14 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

WEST, Texas — While investigators explore the cause of last Wednesday’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, very little is being discussed about what responders knew about the risks.

On Monday, News 8 began asking some tough questions... but answers were short and frustratingly vague.

Five days after the explosion, investigators have still not determined a cause. But attention is still focused on the half-million pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored on site.

Scientists and engineers consulted by News 8 say ammonium nitrate combined with a raging fire could have caused the blast.

"This is a very intense fire capable of creating temperatures way over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit... possibly reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit," said explosion safety analyst Don Deaver. "That's enough heat to create and trigger an explosive type of reaction."

The explosion killed 14, including 11 first responders.

A key question is: What were the responders told about any chemical threat?

The owners of West Fertilizer Company had disclosed that up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored on site. It was the top chemical listed on the state's report called a Tier II Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory form.

Joe Ondrasek, with the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas, says all fire departments should be familiar with their Tier II reports.

"It has all the contact information with what chemicals they carry, and just some general information about the place," he said.

But did fire department and town officials disclose that information to the volunteers racing to the scene on April 17?

City of West officials Monday said they were too overwhelmed to respond to that question.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek, a volunteer fireman who headed to the fire before the explosion, also declined to respond.

"I'm here to work with the citizens," Vanek said. "I'm not going to get into all of that because that's outside of my expertise."

Even if responders were warned about ammonium nitrate, experienced firefighter Ondrasek said that information wouldn't have altered his approach to fighting a similar fire.

"It's not something I'm scared of," he said. "I'm just not."

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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