5 Years After the Ground Shook

April 1, 2018
After the tragic fertilizer plant explosion that killed 10 first responders, the West, TX, community looks forward and makes changes.

It has been five years since an explosion claimed the lives of 10 first responders working to extinguish a fire at a fertilizer plant in West, TX. On that night the ground shook—April 17, 2013—lives were changed and hearts were broken throughout the fire service community and beyond.

The 10 responders had raced to the scene of a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility. And in less than 20 minutes, the plant, which contained an estimated 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate, exploded with the force of 7.5 to 10 tons of TNT. 

The blast obliterated the plant and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings, including the West Middle School, the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, a 50-unit apartment building and the West EMS station.

More than 200 people were injured, but it was the final death toll that rocked the community—15, including the 10 first responders, two men who sprang into action to assist the responders, as well as three civilians who lived nearby. 

Remembering the fallen

The 10 first responders have been praised for their efforts to quell the flames, buying valuable time for their friends, neighbors and other citizens to evacuate the area. Firehouse honors these brave souls:

  • Morris Bridges – West Volunteer Fire Department
  • Perry Calvin – Firefighter, Mertens and Mills volunteer fire departments; Member, West EMS
  • Jerry Chapman – Firefighter, Abbott Volunteer Fire Department; Member, West EMS
  • Cody Dragoo – Firefighter, West Volunteer Fire Department
  • Kenneth Harris – Captain, Dallas Fire-Rescue
  • Joseph Pustejovsky – Firefighter, West Volunteer Fire Department
  • Cyrus Reed – Firefighter, Abbott Volunteer Fire Department; Member, West EMS
  • Kevin Sanders – Firefighter, Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department; Member, West EMS
  • Doug Snokhous – Captain, West Volunteer Fire Department
  • Robert Snokhous – Captain, West Volunteer Fire Department

Additionally, Jimmy Matus—the manager of a local fire apparatus manufacturing company—responded to help firefighters with the operation of the fire truck. William “Buck” Uptmor—owner of a fence-building company—responded to evacuate livestock at a property located adjacent to the plant. Matus and Uptmor were later made honorary West firefighters. 

More than 10,000 people attended the memorial service for the 10 first responders, including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr. 

Investigations and recommendations

Multiple investigations were initiated to determine the cause of the blast and what actions could have protected firefighters responding to the event. 

In November 2014, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released its summary of its firefighter fatality investigation. The report identified multiple contributing factors to the firefighters’ deaths:

  • Non-recognition of the hazards associated with ammonium nitrate
  • Limited pre-incident planning of commercial facility
  • Fire quickly spread to an uncontrollable size
  • Approximately 40–60 tons of solid ammonium nitrate unexpectedly detonated
  • Responders working within blast radius at time of explosion
  • Large non-sprinklered, wood construction, commercial structure.

The full report is available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/pdfs/face201311.pdf.

The Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office also published a Firefighter Fatality Investigation report, offering 12 recommendations to reduce future risks. The full report is available at www.tdi.texas.gov/reports/fire/documents/fmloddwest.pdf.

In May 2016, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ruled that the fire was an incendiary, criminal act. 

West today

The West Fire Department roster had 27 members at the time of the incident, 15 of whom remain active members today. There are currently 29 members on the roster.

Harold Pfleiderer became the city’s part-time fire marshal in 2015, with duties that cover inspections, prevention and managing records for the fire department. The rest of the department is volunteer.

Pfleiderer said the department has made significant progress on the majority of the 12 recommendations published in the Texas State Fire Marshal’s incident report, and noted the following changes since the incident:

  • The department implemented standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for all areas of operations.
  • The department has created preplans for all high-risk and target-hazard locations within the city.
  • The department has implemented risk management processes for all members to utilize, and retooled its strategies and tactics to include alternative attack plans.
  • The department has taken incident command training and implemented an Incident Command System. This includes a formal accountability process, and incident safety officer training was also conducted.
  • Several members have taken hazardous material training, and the department has a hazardous material plan in place. Emergency Response Guides and binoculars are carried on all apparatus.
  • The department reconfigured its fire and life safety efforts and developed new fire prevention outreach plans.
  • The city adopted the 2015 International Fire Council Codes.
  • The department has increased the number of hours and the degree of training for its members. Firefighters attend regional training and partake in training with area departments. Several of the newer members who are career firefighters in other cities are certified fire instructors who have helped elevate the level of in-house training.
  • The city implemented a policy that prohibits firefighters from taking part in activities if they’ve consumed alcohol or drugs.

There was no formal incident command structure in place when the explosion occurred, Pfleiderer explained, so incoming resources were not sure where firefighters were or what was needed in the initial stages.

“We are trying to correct those things, but it takes time,” he said.  

Pfleiderer is working with city officials to adopt the latest building codes, but said it’s a lengthy process because of costs. They are also working to retrofit existing structures with fire protection systems designed to improve occupant and firefighter safety.

Building back up

The department lost a pumper, tanker and brush truck in the explosion, and has since updated its apparatus fleet. Shortly after the explosion, Pierce and local dealer Siddons Martin donated a new 3,000-gallon tanker and a used pumper to get the department back in service. The department later purchased two used pumpers with insurance money. A partial donation helped the department procure a brush truck, and a command unit was also donated. The only apparatus in the current fleet from five years ago is a brush truck. 

After purchasing the two used pumpers, West donated the pumper it received from the Pierce and Siddons Martin donation to a nearby department; it was that department’s first pumper.

Based on development in West, the department is planning to expand its station and add an aerial ladder to the fleet. 

“We are better prepared for daily challenges,” Pfleiderer said. “We are better equipped, equipment-wise and education-wise.”

Pfleiderer said the department’s goal is to strengthen its response to the recommendations from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office and continue working on the remaining recommendations.

The West EMS station was located three blocks from the explosion site, and a new station, which resembles the original facility, was rebuilt on the original footprint. Inside the station is a memorial to the members of West EMS who were killed in the explosion. 

One ambulance was rebuilt following the blast, and West EMS has purchased several new ambulances since the incident.


Several memorials now adorn the walls in the West Fire Station’s meeting room and outside the one-story station. They include notes of encouragement and photos of the fallen.   

Events to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy were still being planned at press time, but they include a memorial service at a local church and a luncheon with survivors and their families. 

A memorial similar to the one found at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the National Fire Academy is being built near the site of the explosion. It will have 15 granite blocks to remember each person who died. The city hopes it will be completed by the anniversary.

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