WEST, Texas — While investigators look for clues at the scene of last Wednesday's fertilizer plant explosion in Central Texas, one key piece of evidence can only be heard: The West Fire Department dispatcher tapes.
The 19 minutes of radio transmissions provide a critical and accurate of portrayal of what first responders saw... and the danger they didn’t.
- West Police Unit 209: "West Fertilizer, one of their mills is on fire. There's... heavy smoke coming out of the top of it."
That was the call from West Police officer, Unit 209, who at 7:33 p.m. alerts dispatchers of a developing fire at the West Fertilizer Company on the northeast end of town.
- Dispatcher: "51 Fire, 51 Fire. Respond to West Fertilizer Plant they have, a fire out there."
Two minutes later, at 7:35 p.m., Unit 209 arrives at the scene.
- Unit 209: "There's heavy smoke coming out of one of the buildings behind the fertilizer... one of the grains here."
Is it one of the mills full of grain or one of the buildings filled with chemical fertilizer? It's difficult to tell.
So at 7:36 p.m., Unit 209 asks the dispatcher to find out.
- Unit 209: "Can you locate an emergency contact for West Fertilizer to see if I can get in touch with the owner?"
One minute later — six minutes after the initial call — the first fire truck arrives.
- West Fire Department: “West Fire, you can show us on scene. We have flames. F8 to F9, need to go ahead and hook to a hydrant."
Nowhere in the transmissions is there any discussion of chemicals or a potential for an explosion at the facility.
Kent Worley, a former state fire protection commissioner, said the volunteer firefighters should have been prepared for the worst.
"Would they know exactly what they had at that specific moment in time, every amount of product was on hand? That would be difficult to know, and difficult for them to know," Worley said.
But one person was verbalizing danger.
- Unit 209: "One of your firefighters is already on scene; I'm going to head towards the park and the evacuate the park. There's people over there."
It's now 7:40 p.m., one minute after firefighters first arrived on the scene. The fire is already getting out of hand.
- West Fire Department: "Go ahead and get Abbott in Hill County. Go ahead and have them come up here with another engine. We are going to... this is fully involved, big time."
For the next eight minutes, we hear little in the recordings.
Then — at 7:48 p.m. — Unit 209 radios in with critical information.
- Unit 209: "I've got the plant manager here. I don't know if you need him down here, but I've got him parked next to my car if you need him."
A plant manager would be able to provide critical information about any chemicals or danger lurking in any of the facilities or buildings on fire.
Among the chemicals inside, the common but potentially explosive fertilizer ammonium nitrate.
"Ammonium nitrate obviously can be a very volatile product, and there's precautions you obviously you have to utilize when you are dealing with that kind of fire," Worley explained.
At 7:51 p.m., we hear one brief transmission:
- West Fire Department: "73,000 gallons of water."
It was the last transmission before the explosion.
The next thing that is heard from the scene is the panicked cry for help from a firefighter who survived.
- West Fire Department: "We need every ambulance we can get this way. A bomb just went off inside here. It's pretty bad. We've got a lot of firemen down."
Moments later, another call:
- West Fire Department: "We need somebody here now. We've had a bomb go off in here."
According to Worley, based on the radio transmissions, there was no hint of fear... no hesitation among a group of volunteers willing to put their lives on the line to keep their community safe.
"In this case, the firefighters did what they could, and probably the whole time they were thinking was, 'How can I bring this under control to keep an event such as this from happening?'” he said. "And unfortunately in this case, it just didn't happen."