By Christopher Sherman
WEST — When the first call came in, it was just a fire. Smoke was coming from West Fertilizer Co. and an alarm was sounding, so a woman at a park just across the railroad tracks called 911. She was calm and matter of fact. The dispatcher responded in kind: “OK, I’m going to get them to put out the fire.”
It was 7:29 p.m. April 17, and the last routine moment in West, Texas, since.
Within 20 minutes, the park was strewn with two-foot chunks of concrete from the exploded fertilizer plant. The apartment complex behind it was ripped apart by the wave of energy that climbed the railroad bed and slammed into the building, shredding its roof and blowing out windows.
Dispatchers were swamped with hysterical reports. Nearly all 50 calls that flooded in during the next 35 minutes came from within a mile of the plant. Some knew what happened, others knew only that windows had suddenly shattered on them and houses several blocks from the site were on fire.
Firefighters and EMTs would account for 10 of 14 people killed, and more than 200 people in the town of 2,800 would be counted as injured.
State and federal investigators continued combing the site Monday looking for the cause of the blast so powerful it registered as small earthquake. They had found the center of the explosion a day earlier, but not the fire’s starting point.
Recordings show fears ran rampant among those who called 911 last Wednesday night.
One woman who glanced outside and saw the mushroom cloud that erupted from the blast could be heard shouting: “Get out of the house. Get out,” to those around her. “There’s a freaking cloud. Look at that!” An off-duty firefighter concerned about the air called a second time to say he was leaving with his family. A man wearing an ankle monitor told a dispatcher as he drove that he was fleeing the chemicals.
Investigators later assured residents the town’s air was not toxic.
Calls from those further away relate terror of the unknown. Dispatchers asked callers to take deep breaths and repeat the unintelligible.
“Something happened out here,” a crying 83-year-old woman tells the operator, her voice quavering. “Our house exploded or something. There was a big explosion and then our house is just destroyed.
“We’re all ok, but my God, what has happened?” she said. “I’m scared to death.”
Residents and dispatchers soon realized the enormity of the situation. One woman who called about a house burning on her street was asked if she lived close to the fertilizer plant. But she said she was several blocks away.
Less than five minutes after the first explosion call, dispatchers also knew West’s own emergency resources were severely hampered.
“Listen to me, my ambulance station just completely exploded,” a West EMS supervisor can be heard saying on one call. “I’ve got a nursing home and an ambulance station and an air evac. I need as many ... trucks as you can send this way.”
“The roof completely collapsed on the building. I’m doing a walk through now. I think we got everybody out,” he said. “I don’t have radio communications, I have lost my repeater.”
The blast left the city with one functioning ambulance.
An EMT training class was in the building that evening. The trainees already had passed their practical exam, so they left the class to go help, said Dr. George Smith, West EMS’s medical director.
Four of the 18 in that class died. “Every one of them were friends of mine,” Smith said.
Smith now carries a photo on his phone that shows a huge pile of debris, part of what used to be the West Rest Haven nursing home, where he also is medical director. The home sat between the ambulance building and the fertilizer plant.
“I was under that,” Smith said of the collapsed roof in the photo. His face bears scrapes and scratches from the night.
Smith and others managed to get all of the about 130 residents out. One man later died, not from injuries but his existing medical conditions, Smith said.
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