As investigators search for the cause of the West explosion, UT students return to survey the damage

AddThis

Churchgoers huddle to pray after a service for the First Baptist Church in a field Sunday, four days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The church could not meet in their building because it was in a damage zone after the massive explosion.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Five days after a fertilizer plant explosion rocked the small town of West, federal and state investigators are still at a loss as to what started the fire that triggered the explosion.

As the investigation progresses, new details are coming to light about the plant’s safety record and reporting, which is managed by multiple state and federal agencies with varying responsibilities. The plant, which was fewer than 3,000 feet from a school, did not have sprinklers, fire walls or water deluge systems. Last summer, West Fertilizer Co. was fined for improperly labeling storage tanks and preparing to transfer chemicals without a security plan. 

Marketing senior Hannah Hutyra, who is from West, said she never considered the fertilizer plant a potential danger. Two of Hutyra’s family members, Doug and Robert Snokhous, were West volunteer firefighters, and were among the 10 first responders killed in the explosion. 

“I used to run cross country [at West High School], and we would run by it every single day because it’s not far from the high school,” Hutyra told The Daily Texan on Thursday. “We never even thought about our safety.”

In a risk management plan submitted in 2011, the company did not list fire or an explosion as potential dangers. The plant was allowed to store up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which the Texas Department of State Health Services described as an “extremely hazardous substance,” and up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which the agency categorizes as flammable and potentially toxic. 

The West plant had not been inspected since 2006, when a complaint was filed about an “ammonia odor,” but according to a representative from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, this is not unusual.

“Inspections are complaint driven,” Ramiro Garcia, the commission’s head of enforcement and compliance, said to The Associated Press. “We usually look at more of the major facilities.”

The plant has never been inspected or cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The explosion on Wednesday killed 14 people and injured 200 more, while also damaging upward of 70 homes in the small town about 20 miles north of Waco.

Ethan Sparks, a mathematics and geography senior who is also from West, returned to the town on Thursday but could not go home until Saturday afternoon. Sparks said his own home, seven blocks from the plant, suffered minimal damage — and because residents have not been allowed into the area of West most disrupted by the explosion, the biggest difference he noticed was the influx of people into West.

Sparks said the town is coming together to support the families most affected by the explosion and are collecting money for victims through POINTWEST Bank.

“People are already banding together,” Sparks said. “Everyone is ready to get involved, and everyone is working to get things fixed up.”

Despite the explosion, Sparks said he harbors no ill will toward the plant. 

“A lot of people in West are farmers, so it’s almost a necessity to have a fertilizer plant,” Sparks said. “It was an accident. Accidents happen.” 

Information from The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.