It’s something all firefighters study.
The dangers of ammonium nitrate, a commonly-used agricultural fertilizer, are well-known. The April 17 explosion at West Fertilizer Co. demonstrated once again the devastation that can happen when that potential danger becomes reality.
“When you’re a rookie, you spend an extensive amount of time studying these types of situations,” said Decatur Fire Chief Mike Richardson. “We have plenty of strategies and planned tactics for any type of problem that occurs with it. We train a lot for these eventualities.”
Ammonium nitrate was the fuel in the Texas City disaster of April 16, 1947 – a devastating explosion that occurred after a vessel carrying a large amount of the substance caught fire while it was docked. The explosion killed approximately 600 people, including 26 firefighters who were battling the blaze – the entire Texas City Fire Department.
Since then it’s become standard fare of fire training.
“It doesn’t explode suddenly,” Richardson said. “It’s a process. It absorbs latent heat and holds it until the product decomposes. When it does decompose, it explodes suddenly. Part of our training is knowing how to stop that chemical reaction.”
Once fire occurs around the ammonium nitrate it takes a certain amount of time burning before the chemical reaction and explosion occurs.
“What happened in West, from what I have heard, is that they were all aware of the potential explosion, and they had all been trained in how to stop it,” Richardson said. “But at the time they couldn’t muster enough resources to stop the chemical process. And they didn’t know when the stopwatch started.
“They took a gamble, and they all suffered tremendously. But they did what they had to do at the time.”
As of Monday, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was still working with the Texas State Fire Marshal to determine the cause of the blast. A spokesperson with the ATF said it could take weeks to determine what caused the fire and subsequent massive explosion that killed 14 people, injured hundreds and destroyed buildings and homes located blocks away from its epicenter.
Nine of those killed were firefighters with West or other fire departments.
West Fertilizer Co. produced as much as 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate every year. The explosion left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
In the agricultural communities of Wise County, it’s common for hundreds of pounds of the fertilizer to be stored at farms and ranches at certain times of the year.
“There are places throughout the county that do store ammonium nitrate for agricultural use,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t take a lot of ammonium nitrate to have a catastrophic event. For example, the Murrah building explosion was caused by one truck filled with ammonium nitrate.”
The Ryder truck parked by Timothy McVeigh beside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, held only enough ammonium nitrate to fertilize less than five acres of farmland. Yet the explosion it caused killed 168 people, including 19 children, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings.
“It’s difficult to keep track of all of it,” Richardson said. “But the No. 1 thing is recognition it is there and for people who store it to keep it secure and clean and away from contamination.
“It’s important for local fire departments to know where this stuff is stored – not for the general public to know – but it is for emergency responders to know. A knowledge and awareness of these products and where these are stored is key to protecting public safety.”
Wise County also has a couple of large industrial facilities located on the edge of cities, just like West Fertilizer Co. was positioned on the edge of West. Those companies have worked extensively with local emergency responders to know how to react to any potentially dangerous accident.
“The only thing we have in our area is the Devon Energy gas plant,” said Terry Long, chief of Bridgeport Volunteer Fire Department. “We have a disaster plan in place with Devon Energy. It is a detailed plan that utilizes plant employees, the fire department, the police department and the sheriff’s office. Each agency knows their roles in case there is an emergency.
“There is also an evacuation plan in place. Devon has a good, working relationship with all local fire departments.”
In Decatur, Poco Graphite is positioned near the northeastern edge of town.
“Poco Graphite has certain systems and materials that if a fire broke out and was left unchecked could be catastrophic,” Richardson said. “But they are a company that has a strong safety system put in place.
“We meet with them on a regular basis throughout the year on what their processes are and what our procedures would be. They have a very good safety program out there.”