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Major explosion rocks West, Texas
April 17, 2013 7:51 PM   Subscribe

A massive fireball and explosion has happened at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas (just north of Waco). Hundreds of injuries are being reported.

According to the Waco tribune, "every house within about four blocks is blown apart". As of right now, dozens of homes and buildings are reported being on fire or destroyed, including a middle school and an occupied nursing home. Photo of the fire. Related tweets.
posted by item (414 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Live video feed.
posted by item at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2013


Not far from me. I hope there are no deaths, but it seems like too much to wish for :(
posted by LukeLockhart at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Am I wrong to think that fertilizer plants always have some non-trivial chance of this happening?
posted by fatbird at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


. Too many explosions.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:54 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The nursing home has just collapsed with people inside, according to Reuters via CNN.
posted by item at 7:55 PM on April 17, 2013


"Near Waco" and 3 days away from the Davidian anniversary, though, and we're not gonna hear the end of this for a long time.

The Alex Jones "False flag!" dipshits are really, really starting to wear away at my patience.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:57 PM on April 17, 2013 [30 favorites]


See also the 1947 Texas City Disaster, the worst industrial disaster in US history, also an ammonium nitrate explosion.
posted by unSane at 7:58 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


My girlfriend's folks live a bit under 40 miles away in Grandview and, according to her mom, their whole house shook with the blast.
posted by item at 7:58 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of my cousins posted on FB that the explosion shook her house. Assuming her "current city" is up to date... she felt it 50 miles away.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is fucking awful.
posted by Scientist at 7:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The nursing home has just collapsed with people inside, according to Reuters via CNN.


I just... I can't anymore with this whole week. Assuming the fetal position starting...NOW.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 8:00 PM on April 17, 2013 [25 favorites]


What appears to have happened was they sprayed water on burning ammonium nitrate, which created a huge endothermic reaction and blew up the plant.

They should know not to do this right?
posted by empath at 8:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Christ. When this got mentioned in the other thread, I kind of assumed it was a big explosion in the middle of nowhere, not a big explosion in a town. Because apparently I know nothing about where you build fertilizer plants.
posted by hoyland at 8:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


what the fucking fuck is with this fucking week god fucking damn it it's only wednesday
posted by ghostbikes at 8:02 PM on April 17, 2013 [78 favorites]


Timely: The Guardian, "News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier"
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:02 PM on April 17, 2013 [33 favorites]


Fuck.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:04 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


They should know not to do this right?

An endothermic reaction consumes heat not produces it.

Spraying ammonium nitrate with water is the correct thing to do. If it was going to blow it was going to blow because it had started to decompose and the temperature was over 210C. The water had nothing to do with it.
posted by unSane at 8:05 PM on April 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


was they sprayed water on burning ammonium nitrate

MSDS: "Do not use water jet. Use flooding quantities of water."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


So far I've only seen the water on ammonium nitrate story repeated by a hotel clerk and a convenience store clerk. Maybe want to wait for an official statement before jumping on board.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:08 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is it selfish of me that everytime I hear about something like this anymore the first thing that goes through my head is to hope there weren't any MeFites nearby? It probably is selfish, but there it is. My heart goes out to everyone involved. And I hope there weren't any MeFites nearby.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:09 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


Someone caught an amazing shot of the explosion from nearby on Instagram
posted by mathowie at 8:09 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Firefighter/EMS Audio feed
posted by Scientist at 8:10 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


My mom was at church 45 miles away, and it shook the church. A big 'ole barn of a place. They thought it was an earthquake.
posted by donajo at 8:10 PM on April 17, 2013


Someone caught an amazing shot of the explosion from nearby on Instagram

Oh, wow. That's closer to the Czech Stop than I would have liked. (Best kolaches in the state!) I wonder if it was right next to the highway or what. (Not that West is big enough to be far away from the highway at any point, really.)

This week is so, so fired.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:11 PM on April 17, 2013 [10 favorites]


Someone caught an amazing shot of the explosion from nearby on Instagram

I don't know if it's serious or not, but in the comments on the right-hand side there's a guy claiming to be from CNN asking for permanent rights to the photo without mentioning money, which is sort of a dick move.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:13 PM on April 17, 2013


It feels like the end times. But it always feels like the end times.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the water thing was a witness who said the plant blew when they sprayed it with water. That could easily be completely wrong.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2013


From the other thread, information on ammonium nitrate disasters.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Someone caught an amazing shot of the explosion from nearby on Instagram

That building on the right is the Czech Stop, home of the most kickass kolaches this side of Prague - and also a spectacular collection of signed 8x10's from the thousands of bands that've stopped through over the years. West is on I35, a major corridor between Austin and Dallas.
posted by item at 8:15 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


"News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier"

But don't stop until after you've read my op-ed and book plug.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:16 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Firefighter/EMS Audio feed

I've never actually listened to one of these until now. I think I just found my new obsession hobby.
posted by bendy at 8:17 PM on April 17, 2013


For Texans, West isn't just a tiny blip on I-35. It's one of the kolache capitals of Texas. Coming soon to a bakery near you. It is a quintessential road trip refueling station. (On preview, thirding restless_nomad and item)
posted by donajo at 8:18 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Video of the explosion.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:20 PM on April 17, 2013 [31 favorites]


Holy crap. Prayers for everybody involved.

This week has been crazypants.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:21 PM on April 17, 2013


More props for Czech Stop.
posted by neuron at 8:21 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Personally I think Czech Stop kolaches are insanely overrated (go a little bit farther into town and get the better stuff) but this is kinda sad. West has been one of my families prime pitstop locations on any drive between the Metroplex and Austin for decades.
posted by vuron at 8:22 PM on April 17, 2013


> ... the first thing that goes through my head is to hope there weren't any MeFites nearby?

A quick way to check on the proximity of your MeFite friends would be to set your profile location's latitude and longitude to the coordinates of the incident. Then you can look at "Nearby users" in the right-hand column of your MeFi profile to see a list of other MeFites living near those coordinates in ascending distance.

Although only MeFites who have listed their location in their profiles will be included, I'm guessing there's significant correlation between overall engagement with the site and fully filling out one's profile (setting your GPS coordinates is how you get customized Meetup notifications), so you've got a good chance of anyone you'd recognize showing up in the list.

GPS coordinates for West Fertilizer Co, 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, West, TX are:
Latitude: 31.816564
Longitude: -97.087763

Of course, everyone rushing to try this themselves will generate a lot of false positives, so if you do this please remember to change it back ASAP.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:22 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's also where they have WestFest, for which I just made the connection. If you want to get drunk as fuck on beer and watch polka dancing, I highly recommend it.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:22 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ho-leeee mackerel, that video. I'm glad the user was able to submit it, because jeeeeeez louise, talk about being right in the action.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:22 PM on April 17, 2013


omg, this sounds nightmarish... this is very bad, those poor people.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:22 PM on April 17, 2013


Jesus Horace, hopefully whoever took that was in a vehicle because damn, shockwave from that was insane.
posted by vuron at 8:23 PM on April 17, 2013


Video of the explosion.

Shee-yit!

I thought the beginning of the video was after the explosion. Then the explosion happened unexpectedly, and I recoiled back from my monitor, heart thumping.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [11 favorites]


You don't go to the Czech Stop for kolaches. You go there for the egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches. They're awesome. They're kolaches are ok.

Holy shit, that photo. I've stood in that exact spot dozens of times. I can't imagine what I would do if I saw that. Hopefully I'd go into the same mode my mom goes into and handle a crisis, but you never know until you're in that situation.

West is a very busy stop on I35 between Austin and Dallas. Most motorists I know (myself included) skip stopping in Waco specifically to get food/gas at the Czech Stop.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:26 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


jeebus, that video that Horace Rumpole posted immediately made me think of the Henderson, Nevada rocket plant explosion.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you want to get drunk as fuck on beer and watch polka dancing

Some days I'm not sure I've ever wanted anything else.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [33 favorites]


Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice? I mean, I would guess that anything remotely chemical would be regulated-the-hell-out-of. I almost dare not set my google finger to work on it.
posted by miette at 8:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nthing the "holy shit, the photo taken from the Czech Stop". Hoping for miracles for all who were close by when it happened.
posted by immlass at 8:29 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


fuck you, April, you have been a rubbish month all around

I am going to watch baby goat videos until May

.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:30 PM on April 17, 2013 [17 favorites]


holy crap I grew up hearing that I had a polish great-aunt or something that made great kolache and this thread is the first time I have ever actually seen how to spell it so now I can look up what it actually is and find recipes and attempt to get in touch with my heritage

i'm also learning a lot about chemistry.

but really these bits of knowledge are not worth the price of this event. watching the live news video feed with all the fires burning is horrifying.
posted by ghostbikes at 8:31 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice? I mean, I would guess that anything remotely chemical would be regulated-the-hell-out-of. I almost dare not set my google finger to work on it.

Because Texas, motherfuckers.
posted by unSane at 8:31 PM on April 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


What happens if the fertilizer plant came first and then the town grew up around or towards it? I imagine that happens often enough.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:31 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


(People generally prefer to live near where they work, after all.)
posted by Jacqueline at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2013


These TX towns grow around the existing farm infrastructure all the time. Fertilizer plant was probably there long before the neighborhood, old folks home, Sonic, and Czech Stop.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Shit, and the area is set to be hit with some pretty severe thunderstorms in a matter of hours, only making the responders' work all that much more difficult.
posted by item at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2013


Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice? I mean, I would guess that anything remotely chemical would be regulated-the-hell-out-of.
posted by miette


I'm sure things vary from place to place, but I do know that I've got industrial plants within a mile of my home, producing and/or storing highly explosive materials. I'm an EMT and a friend of mine is the local head of the OEM - according to him, we're all definitely dead in the event of a significant event with one or more of these places.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:33 PM on April 17, 2013


I hate TX as much as anyone, but this isn't really the time for bashing. Have some heart. Even the Yankees were respectful of Boston and I'd bet casualties in TX are higher than the marathon in the end..just less live cameras and notoriety.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:33 PM on April 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice?
You mean like some kind of government regulation!? In Texas.

In reality, people mostly expect these plants not to explode. I don't think there is much regulation about these things needing to be far away from people anywhere (as far as I know), although it might be hard to get zoning to build a new one in the middle of some random city today, a small town might be open to it for economic development, and a lot of times they'll want to be near road and rail lines.
posted by delmoi at 8:34 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


What happens if the fertilizer plant came first and then the town grew up around or towards it? I imagine that happens often enough.

Looking at the map, it actually looks that way. There's a square street grid a bit south of the plant; stuff up by the plant has a different layout so the town might have slowly expanded up to the plant location. Luckily, there's only residential areas on the west side of the plant. To the east there's fields for quite some distance.
posted by LionIndex at 8:34 PM on April 17, 2013


For those of you puzzled about the "fertilizer" and "explosion" connection, ammonium nitrate can be quite explosive to the point it's been used as ingredients in homemade bombs during terrorist attacks. Oklahoma City was an ammonium nitrate and diesel bomb, so it can (literally) go off with the force of a bomb.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:35 PM on April 17, 2013


West is not exactly the town you want to Texas-bash over anyway. It's all old Czech families who like kolaches, beer and oompah music, which overlaps some with rednecks but is in no way your typical small town Texas resident.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


If you want to get drunk as fuck on beer and watch polka dancing

Some days I'm not sure I've ever wanted anything else.


Especially this week. Jesus.
posted by emjaybee at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


I hate TX as much as anyone, but this isn't really the time for bashing

Apparently it is, and I must not be anyone because I don't hate Texas and I always miss the fuck out of this place when I'm away for any length of time.
posted by item at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [21 favorites]


I have a quite elderly mom in a nursing home, so every time I hear of some horror pertaining to such ---

Why did I go on the net this time of nite.
posted by NorthernLite at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, there are some enormous outdoor tanks on the satellite image. No wonder it made such a huge explosion.

I hope the fire crews were evacuating when it exploded (instead of sticking around, trying to fight the fire).
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:37 PM on April 17, 2013


On the scanner right now a dispatcher is telling a bunch of folks to "evacuate toward the command center, that area is still a red zone."

:(
posted by SemiSophos at 8:37 PM on April 17, 2013


fuck you, April, you have been a rubbish month all around

The flowers come May had better be FUCKING MAJESTIC.
posted by maryr at 8:38 PM on April 17, 2013 [53 favorites]


miette: "Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice? I mean, I would guess that anything remotely chemical would be regulated-the-hell-out-of. I almost dare not set my google finger to work on it."

There's a biiiiig petroleum refining plant right outside of Denver. There's houses and subdivisions within a mile of it, too. The plant came first, and then the suburbs came later.
posted by boo_radley at 8:38 PM on April 17, 2013


(CNN) — Dr. Gorge Smith Director of West EMS believes that there are 60 to 70 dead and hundreds injured.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:38 PM on April 17, 2013


Gallery of photos from the Waco Tribune.
posted by item at 8:39 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can someone please post a link to the scanner?
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:39 PM on April 17, 2013


Damn. April can just end now. I'm ready for an extended May. Hope this is not as bad as they're predicting.
posted by arcticseal at 8:40 PM on April 17, 2013


Scanner link, from upthread: http://www.broadcastify.com/listen/feed/2663
posted by SemiSophos at 8:40 PM on April 17, 2013


IIRC there are plenty of big Fertilizer plants in the NE and Midwest including Pittsburgh so it's not like Texas is some sort of aberration.

Well Texas is an aberration but not about this.
posted by vuron at 8:41 PM on April 17, 2013


Apparently it is, and I must not be anyone because I don't hate Texas and I always miss the fuck out of this place when I'm away for any length of time.
As an Okie the rivalry is strong. Much like the Yankees/BoSox rivalry. I'm suspending it. No need to chastise. This is tragic.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:41 PM on April 17, 2013


Czech Stop nothing, the place to eat in West is Nors Sausage and Burger House for the garlic sausage-burger.

He said, lamely and helplessly, assuming that it's still standing and the owner isn't dead.

Fucking month.
posted by ormondsacker at 8:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hyperblue, this is one of those circumstances where I really hope that CNN got some bogus information again.
posted by vuron at 8:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


.
posted by humanfont at 8:43 PM on April 17, 2013


Jesus.
posted by mazola at 8:44 PM on April 17, 2013


Anyone have any sort of link to that CNN figure? I'm not hearing it on the channel proper.
posted by item at 8:45 PM on April 17, 2013


.
posted by drezdn at 8:45 PM on April 17, 2013


FWIW, I saw the same figure tweeted by Texan tv journo. I seriously hope it's mistaken.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 8:45 PM on April 17, 2013


Here's a video of the explosion, which I wasn't expecting. Link opens with the quote from Dr. Smith saying that they think 60-70 are dead. I live in Waco, but didn't feel the explosion, though others are saying they did.
posted by scunning at 8:47 PM on April 17, 2013


Wikipedia: West Fertilizer Plant explosion

"On 17 April 2013, the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas (a city in McLennan County near Waco, Texas) had a big boom boom occur at 7:50 p.m. CDT (00:50 UTC)."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:48 PM on April 17, 2013


Texas mefites, I am thinking of you and so sorry - this is a major disaster.

fuck you, April, you have been a rubbish month all around

April is the cruelest month - it's certainly living up to that.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Per Dallas NBC affiliate - 200 injured, 40 critical - 75-100 buildings destroyed,
posted by Dojie at 8:48 PM on April 17, 2013


This is horrible. I can't even process. So sorry.
posted by sweetkid at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


252-202-1100 Hotline for information
posted by HyperBlue at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2013


"Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice?"

Fertilizer plants need access to pipelines and railroads, and those tend to cross near urban areas.
posted by Kevin Street at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2013


Jesus, I can't believe there are fire crews who will still try to fight a fire in an ammonium nitrate plant/storage/ship/semi truck full. It's happened so many times. We told our local fire/EMS that a fire at our facility is an "ABC fire" - Armchair, Binoculars, Cooler. Just get people away and stop the fire from spreading OUTSIDE the facility, not worth trying to put it out where you can get killed. Just like Port of Texas, the first to die were the fire crews. All the firemen and their equipment gone, what can you do about the fires in the surrounding area?
posted by bert2368 at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2013 [40 favorites]


This has been an awful week. So sorry to hear this. As stated above, too many explosions.
.
posted by pernoctalian at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2013


Friend of mine near Dallas says WFAA there is claiming the same number. 60-70 dead, "hundreds" injured.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2013


I am hoping for the best possible outcomes and thinking of all my favorite Texan mefites. It's just too much.
posted by ambrosia at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


(CNN) — Dr. Gorge Smith Director of West EMS believes that there are 60 to 70 dead and hundreds injured.

Holy crap - that would make it the worst industrial disaster in the US since the Buffalo Creek flood.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:53 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hope the hospital and air evac station survived intact; they're pretty close to the plant.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:54 PM on April 17, 2013


I've seen chemical, petrochemical, and automotive plants on the outskirts of fairly large communities (although they were all in Ontario), and they all had a 20 foot berm around their perimeter to deflect the blast wave up into the sky, away from the town, in the event of a disaster-scale explosion like this.

From the google map of West, it looks flat all the way to the rail line, and continuing on to the street. An unobstructed sight line right out to the township at ground level.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:55 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Something awesome better happen before Sunday. I'm talking steak growing from trees and hot and cold running scotch awesome. Something like Jesus and Mohammed coming down from heaven to invite everyone to their wedding. Or Kurt coming back from the dead to get the old band back together.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:55 PM on April 17, 2013 [36 favorites]


Friend of mine near Dallas says WFAA there is claiming the same number. 60-70 dead, "hundreds" injured

Looks like they're quoting the same guy from KWTX. I really wish they'd get confirmation before they publish numbers like that, but thus is the era of the 24 hour news cycle.
posted by item at 8:56 PM on April 17, 2013


The population of West is less than 3,000. There won't be a family in town that isn't touched by this.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:56 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm just exceedingly glad that this didn't happen while kids were in school at the High School/Middle School.
posted by vuron at 8:57 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Initial (post-explosion) emergency services comms.
posted by rollbiz at 8:57 PM on April 17, 2013


And, yeah, another Texan here who stops at West every time I do the Metroplex to San Antonio run. It's one of the most well known small towns in the state. (And, item, my mom used to teach in Grandview, and I used to attend church there. Small world.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:58 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


ABC has a photo that appears to show most of the town on fire.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:58 PM on April 17, 2013


75-100 buildings destroyed - how many buildings are there in West total? That has to be a significant percentage of the whole town, it's really small.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Time and place folks, time and place. If you need to have a discussion in MetaTalk, we totally understand but try to be cool here at MetaFilter.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


If the town has a population of 3,000, I'm going to guess there are significantly more than 100 buildings.
posted by maryr at 9:03 PM on April 17, 2013


An endothermic reaction consumes heat not produces it.

Spraying ammonium nitrate with water is the correct thing to do. If it was going to blow it was going to blow because it had started to decompose and the temperature was over 210C. The water had nothing to do with it.


Apparently, it was anhydrous ammonia, which produces an exothermic reaction with water.
posted by empath at 9:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


News says it was a tank of anhydrous ammonia, not ammonium nitrate. Probably the ammonia in the tank boiled because of the heat from the fire, the tank blew, and then the ammonia vapor hit the fire and deflagrated. That would definitely make a big boom if it was a big tank, which it probably was since ammonia is one of the main precursors of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
posted by Scientist at 9:05 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


On Google maps, It looks like any other agricultural supply depot you'd find at the edge of town. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost something or someone from this.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:06 PM on April 17, 2013


Does anyone have any good links around standard regulations for fertilizer plants, like the berms mentioned above, or anything else that might situate this story a little better? Background on the town? It seems like a really great place (bands and kolaches!) so I would like to know a little more if possible.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:06 PM on April 17, 2013


West mayor Tommy Muska: 133 patients, many hauled via pickup truck, significant damage to nursing home. No accurate estimates of dead, or injured yet. Most important thing is to account for everyone. Fire still burning at plant. 5-6 firefighter units (some volunteer) initially responded to fire (before the explosion), but no count of fire/response casualties.

"A lot of people won't be here tomorrow"

.
posted by HyperBlue at 9:07 PM on April 17, 2013


fuck you, April, you have been a rubbish month all around

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain....
posted by dersins at 9:08 PM on April 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Oh god the firemen.
posted by ColdChef at 9:08 PM on April 17, 2013 [11 favorites]


I hope the hospital and air evac station survived intact; they're pretty close to the plant.

From ceribus peribus' map link, it looks like the hospital is right across the street, practically.
posted by odinsdream at 9:08 PM on April 17, 2013


And how many hospitals are there in the Waco area?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:09 PM on April 17, 2013


A friend of mine felt the blast and posted on FB. I have friends and family in the area - so far everyone seems to be ok. *fingers crossed*

She mentioned fatalities - I'm not sure what the source was (though I imagine she's listening to the local police scanner).

Ugh. What a horrible week.
posted by bunderful at 9:11 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


From scanner: "be aware there is a railroad car of anhydrous ammonia stored at the plant"
posted by maggieb at 9:11 PM on April 17, 2013


Agreed, there is nothing funny about cracking poor-in-taste jokes while people are still actively dying on the scene. Anyone who feels like shitting on Texas right now can go scream their vitriol into a fucking hole in the ground, it'll do the same amount of good.

Even our local DFW news anchors have mostly been stricken silent in shock.

If you'd like to help, here's the Red Cross location finder for donating/blood.

Apparently West's fire department is a volunteer one...

Seymour, victims are being careflighted to hospitals in Dallas, Austin and the surrounding areas:

Family looking for information on patients being taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center can call 254-202-1100.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:12 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was very flip in my response when I first saw this posted in the Boston thread, and I'm sorry for that. This is horrific.

My company has an office in Waco. It's entirely possible some of our people live near West or have family who do. I am fortunate that I don't know anyone who lives there, but like everyone else who travels between D/FW and Austin, I've stopped there a million times. Our friends in Brave Combo play West Fest every year.

A few years ago I was working in Dallas near the industrial district when a plant that processed chemicals caught fire.I had never actually heard what a giant roaring fire sounds like from a block away. Canisters were flying into the air like rockets. It was terrifying, and it was tiny compared to this.

That video upthread posted by Horace Rumpole had no blood or gore, but it was terrifying all the same. I hope that family is ok, especially the scared little girl you could hear crying.

Poor West.
posted by emjaybee at 9:12 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Longer, original video from above.

WARNING: there's a child involved who may have been seriously injured.
posted by ColdChef at 9:12 PM on April 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


The 133 patients were in the nursing home. The mayor didn't speculate on the number of injured.
posted by Dojie at 9:13 PM on April 17, 2013


Background on the town? It seems like a really great place (bands and kolaches!) so I would like to know a little more if possible.

The Handbook of Texas has about as good a background as you'll find online.

And how many hospitals are there in the Waco area?

There's one major hospital on the south side of Waco. From news reports I was reading earlier, it sounds like they all but shut down I-35 between West and Waco to allow emergency vehicles to get back and forth.
posted by donajo at 9:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apparently I live under the flight path between West and Parkland Memorial Hospital here in Dallas (containing one of the best burn units in the nation & where it's been reported many of the injured are being CareFlighted). I keep hearing helicopter after helicopter overhead, not a regular sound at the house.
posted by item at 9:14 PM on April 17, 2013


The top local link is still reporting 60-70 dead.

So that's almost certainly true, if not an understatement, right?

Fuck.
posted by Perplexity at 9:15 PM on April 17, 2013


That video of the explosion is horrific. I hope that the young girl didn't lose her hearing...
posted by DRoll at 9:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


WARNING: there's a child involved who may have been seriously injured.

Thank you for the warning, I really.. really don't think I could take more of this.
posted by odinsdream at 9:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Perplexity, that seems really likely given the scale of the blast and the location of the plant. It may be low. They are still trying to rescue people and some will die of their injuries.

Many of those evacuated from the [nursing] home could be seen sitting in wheelchairs near the end of the high school’s football field with cuts on their heads from flying glass after the explosion. About 15 to 20 ambulances were parked on the football field at about 9:45 p.m.

For some reason, this got me.
posted by emjaybee at 9:18 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


That video of the explosion is horrific. I hope that the young girl didn't lose her hearing...

Oh, Jesus. I've seen too much this week. That was hard to listen to.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:19 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is breaking my heart.
posted by roboton666 at 9:20 PM on April 17, 2013


ColdChef: "Oh god the firemen."

What is this, please?
posted by boo_radley at 9:21 PM on April 17, 2013


Fire officials fear that the number of casualties could rise much higher -- as many as 60 to 70 dead, said Dr. George Smith, the emergency management system director of the city.
"That's a really rough number, I'm getting that figure from firefighters, we don't know yet," he said.
"We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead."


One of my best friends in college was an EMT, my brother was a volunteer firefighter, and I have three cousins who are in training. None of them live close by, but I wish I could hug them all after this week.

..
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:22 PM on April 17, 2013


Twitter updates via DFW Scanner

Another photo

I really wish I hadn''t clicked on ColdChef's link, but it's probably as close as anyone could get and survive the blast, surely.

They're now stating the local fire dept. is staffed by 33 volunteers.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:22 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


DRoll: That video of the explosion is horrific. I hope that the young girl didn't lose her hearing...

I doubt it's permanent. It's probably just ringing, but it could be burst eardrums - however, most people with those recover completely.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:23 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Perplexity: "The top local link is still reporting 60-70 dead.

So that's almost certainly true, if not an understatement, right?

Fuck.
"

If it's any consolation, think back on every other big disaster you've heard about. Boston bombing - initial fatality reports higher than final fatality reports. 911 - initial fatality reports higher than final fatality reports. Columbine - initial fatality reports higher than final fatality reports. Tohoku earthquake - initial fatality reports higher than final fatality reports.

I'm a little hard-pressed to think of a big disaster where the final number of fatalities wasn't lower than initial estimates.
posted by Bugbread at 9:23 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bo, the firemen were fighting a smaller fire at the site when the explosion occurred. Given the size of the blast, and that they must have been pretty close ... I think that's what Cold Chef meant.
posted by bunderful at 9:25 PM on April 17, 2013


What is this, please?

The thing was on fire. "5-6 units" of firefighters were there responding. Then it blew up.
posted by lullaby at 9:25 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have to imagine both the father and his child in the video are alright, otherwise that video wouldn't have made it online so quickly. I hope.
posted by SemiSophos at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2013 [12 favorites]


What a week -- what a month.

.
posted by aroweofshale at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2013


They sounded OK, although clearly shaken up.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


National Guard on the phone asking if they need to respond. Response: "Keep them on standby, we do not need them at this time."
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2013


Holy shit. I am shaking right now. Coldchef's link left me freezing cold and shaking. Holy shit. Those poor people, all of them.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah. The firemen. I can't stop thinking of them. Volunteers.
posted by ColdChef at 9:28 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Bugbread:

I'm a little hard-pressed to think of a big disaster where the final number of fatalities wasn't lower than initial estimates."

Newtown.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:28 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"They're now stating the local fire dept. is staffed by 33 volunteers."

And this, in times like these, is why I often jump into threads and urge that we not get all negative and accusatory about public servants like fireman and police and generalize one bad apple to everyone wearing a uniform. There are times that these people stand between us and the terror of our world.
posted by HuronBob at 9:29 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


I have to imagine both the father and his child in the video are alright, otherwise that video wouldn't have made it online so quickly. I hope.

That hadn't yet occurred to me, but it makes sense. Man, I hope you're right.
posted by ColdChef at 9:29 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice?

As mentioned, these plants need access to pipelines and rail lines. And towns tend to grow along established infrastructure axes. (Cheaper, often the path of least resistance.) So, sometimes, various industrial plants that were once on the outskirts of a town wind up beind engulfed by its spread. Not that I have any information that such is the case here. But it's fairly common.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:30 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


things always get worse before they get better ... and visa versa
(Arthur Sand)
posted by philip-random at 9:30 PM on April 17, 2013


.

USA, you've had a horrible week. I'm so sorry.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:31 PM on April 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


Lulu's Pink Converse: "Newtown."

Sorry, I didn't mean it never happens, just that more often than not the initial estimates are higher than final numbers.
posted by Bugbread at 9:32 PM on April 17, 2013


ammonium nitrate can be quite explosive to the point it's been used as ingredients in homemade bombs during terrorist attacks

Ammonium nitrate is the most commonly used industrial explosive by far. It's what we use instead of dynamite these days.

Plants and storage facilities blow up pretty regularly.
posted by ryanrs at 9:32 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


USA, you've had a horrible week. I'm so sorry.

I'm grateful for the very happy Aussie in the green jacket who's been one of the most uplifting images of the last week, oddly enough.

Sorry for the non-sequitur. I'm feeling a little strange tonight. Too much bad news, I guess.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:33 PM on April 17, 2013


Reporter tweeting from scene.
posted by ColdChef at 9:33 PM on April 17, 2013


Goddamnit, someone call the Bat Man.
posted by Token Meme at 9:34 PM on April 17, 2013


So on the topic of death counts, this is the lead cnn article right now.

The lead sentence is "... at least two people dead..." and the third paragraph includes "Fire officials fear that the number of casualties could rise as high as 60 to 70 dead"

WTF?
posted by Perplexity at 9:35 PM on April 17, 2013


The lead sentence is "... at least two people dead..." and the third paragraph includes "Fire officials fear that the number of casualties could rise as high as 60 to 70 dead"

WTF?


The worst hit parts of the landscape are inaccessible for body counts right now.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:36 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's a link to the Google Docs spreadsheet if you'd like to sign up to host a displaced family/resident of West affected by the blast.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:37 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I live in Hewitt, and the video feed on the local news makes it apparent that the top floor of this apartment building is largely gone. If you were standing in that spot looking that direction the fertilizer plant would be directly through the building ahead of you and the retirement home that has been evacuated is immediately behind you.
posted by tcskeptic at 9:37 PM on April 17, 2013


Video of explosion from another angle. No children in this one. Some swearing.
posted by ColdChef at 9:38 PM on April 17, 2013


♪ I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me. ♪
posted by maryr at 9:40 PM on April 17, 2013 [11 favorites]


Remember its the year of the Snake, so it will switch from bad to good.
posted by humanfont at 9:41 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


:O
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:42 PM on April 17, 2013


those videos are fucking unbelievable.
posted by xbonesgt at 9:44 PM on April 17, 2013


Fortunately we have actually had some rain this last week or so, and the area is only in moderate danger of fire. If this had happened later in what looks to be a dry summer, this could have gone from a tragedy to a cataclysm.

(Not that I'm entirely sanguine about the fires as it is. Texas is not exactly flush with firefighters and equipment, as we've found out to our sorrow.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:46 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another crazy coincidence: the Texas City disaster was 66 years ago yesterday. The French ship S.S. Grandcamp, carrying 900 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, setting off two other ships, along with the Monsanto chemical plant, killing at least 581 people. Twenty-seven of the 28 members of Texas City's volunteer fire department and three members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department who were on the docks near the burning ship were killed.
posted by HyperBlue at 9:47 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Photo of destroyed apartments.
posted by ColdChef at 9:47 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, ColdChef.
posted by item at 9:49 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ammonium nitrate plants are sometimes built in order to make industrial explosives.

There's a proposal for a new one, mainly for bombs, just outside of new orleans, so I would also like to know what the best practices for facility construction are!
posted by eustatic at 9:49 PM on April 17, 2013


sometimes feel like I've spent eight years looking at ruined and totalled houses.
posted by The Whelk at 9:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


2013

Stop.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:52 PM on April 17, 2013


WFAA is reporting "a number of firefighters who responded to original call are unaccounted for".
posted by item at 9:52 PM on April 17, 2013


Dammit. I was just telling my husband that I was quitting Metafilter for today, no more news of Boston, since I had nightmares last night. Couldn't help looking at today's posts and saw this. What a shitty week this has been.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:53 PM on April 17, 2013


They're going to do a press conference soon at http://www.kwtx.com/livestream and they are predicting that they will be giving the first estimates of the casualties.
posted by Scientist at 9:56 PM on April 17, 2013


In my dad's part of East Texas, they talk about the 1937 New London School Explosion as if it was yesterday. About 300 students and teachers died in a natural gas explosion. I have a feeling West and McLeannan County will recall this for generations.

I can't stop thinking about New London when I see this. It's what I can map this to.

This is rough, and I didn't know anyone there. I just liked their kolaches.
posted by Mad_Carew at 9:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


West, Texas
posted by philip-random at 10:00 PM on April 17, 2013


Oh my God, that is just horrible. All those poor people.

My community suffered a large industrial explosion recently. It shook all the houses in my neighbourhood (about 5 km/3 miles away from the site) quite hard, and we all knew immediately that something nearby had blown up. However, the neighbourhoods that are 10 km or more from downtown did not feel it at all.

That is why reading this sentence
My girlfriend's folks live a bit under 40 miles away in Grandview and, according to her mom, their whole house shook with the blast.
made my blood run cold, even before I saw the video. If our nontrivial explosion couldn't be felt 10 km (6 miles) away, I shudder to imagine the strength of explosion that would be felt 40 miles away.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:01 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The linked Texas City articles also discuss those kinds of distances. And the images of structural damage to buildings from then are not all that dissimilar from some of those posted upthread.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:03 PM on April 17, 2013


DL Wilson, Department of Public Safety: over 100 injured and confirmed fatalities.
posted by phaedon at 10:04 PM on April 17, 2013


question: can you give us a number of fatalities

question: was it 60-70?

answer: DL Wilson- I can't confirm or deny that number.
posted by HuronBob at 10:07 PM on April 17, 2013


Per Trooper Wilson - 50 units in that smashed apartment complex.

House to house search should be going all night

Plant is still smouldering. Still concerns about another explosion - can't get firefighters in there yet.

8-10 block area evacuated due to concerns about fumes - about half the town - concern that when the storms roll in, the fumes may move and they may have to evacuate the rest of the town.
posted by Dojie at 10:08 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


fuck you, April, you have been a rubbish month all around

T.S. Eliot: "Specifically, April 2013."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


In an interview with the CBC, DL Wilson just said, in regards to the 60-70 number being speculated on: "Could it be that many? Yes. Could it be tremendously less? Yes." He then went on to reiterate that they just don't know yet.
posted by Lexicographer at 10:13 PM on April 17, 2013


Local news station just mentioned the USGS registered the blast as a 2.1 earthquake.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:14 PM on April 17, 2013


They've also pretty much given up on putting out the fires because the toxic fumes are preventing the firefighters getting close enough to fight the fire.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:16 PM on April 17, 2013


Local news station just mentioned the USGS registered the blast as a 2.1 earthquake.

Looks like it.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:18 PM on April 17, 2013


Local news station just mentioned the USGS registered the blast as a 2.1 earthquake.

Looks like it.


From that page:
Explosion at fertilizer factory at West, TX. The magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event.
Holy hell.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:21 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I live north of the area, in Fort Worth. Heavy helicopter traffic. We are close to Bell Helicopter so chopper noise isn't unusual, but this much, this late, definitely is. Not sure if it's medical or media. Probably both.

We're also very close to DFW Airport, which seems to have stopped traffic in that direction. Maybe just using another runway to give the southern airspace to local chopper traffic?

My friends in Mansfield, 30 miles north of Grandview thought there was an earthquake.

l lived in Boston before Fort Worth. April can suck it.
posted by toastedbeagle at 10:23 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


delmoi: "Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice?

You mean like some kind of government regulation!? In Texas"

It's not just Texas. There's an Eli Lilly plant no too far from downtown Indianapolis. If they ever accidentally released all of their chlorine gas at once, half of metro Indy could get killed.

Which half would depend on which way the wind was blowing that day.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:26 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


>We're also very close to DFW Airport, which seems to have stopped traffic in that direction.

The FAA has closed the airspace around the plant/town.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:28 PM on April 17, 2013


This Reddit thread isn't nearly as well-organized as their live update threads for the BMB, but many of the top-voted top-level comments have good resources.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:29 PM on April 17, 2013


FAA has shut down air traffic other than medical in the area according to what I just read, so I'm sure med evac is what you're hearing.

This week has so many bad things in USA's recent history. This is horrible, I just can't even anymore.
posted by SuzySmith at 10:30 PM on April 17, 2013


(CNN) — Dr. Gorge Smith Director of West EMS believes that there are 60 to 70 dead and hundreds injured.

This sent chills down my spine.

I'm so sick of this.


.
posted by mayurasana at 10:31 PM on April 17, 2013


.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:34 PM on April 17, 2013


I looked at the video and the image of the town burning and I kind of hated myself for it because it just feels like horrible voyeurism (for me - I'm not saying that's the case for anyone else). Looking at that and knowing it's happened and people are dead and I'm safe watching it on my computer...well, it feels so horribly wrong especially knowing that there's firefighters who went in there to try and deal with the fire and then faced that explosion. There's a courage I'll never have.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:35 PM on April 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


When they mentioned the airspace closure on the ABC affiliate, they said it was a routine measure primarily to keep out commercial air traffic so it would be clear for any emergency flights.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:37 PM on April 17, 2013


To all of you Texans checking in, I'm so sorry tragedy has now moved into your backyard. What awful news. Like ColdChef, I am sick about the firefighters... and it breaks my heart to think of yet more first responders and medical workers sifting through rubble, and of all the poor people in shock.

Here's hoping the final count of fatalities comes in miraculously low.
posted by torticat at 10:38 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's been a rough week here in the States. It was 50 years ago when I experienced the first "major event" in my cognitive lifetime, the assassination of JFK. And, it rolled forward from that... assassinations, wars, invasions, bombings, riots... we get a little complacent, we relax, and then it happens again and we're torn between the tragedy and the need for something better. In the 60's we campaigned for change. We wanted the world to be a better place for our children, we didn't want them to live in fear. Many of you have maintained that effort, and many of you have joined it.

We're not there yet, obviously, this week has proven that to us. But it's important for those of you that are 50, or 40, or 30, or 20 to know that we haven't given up, but we certainly need your help.

In the midst of the tragedy of this week... North Korean threats, Boston, the failure of the gun control legislation and the explosion in West, Texas....it would be easy to give up, say "the hell with it" and stop making the effort, we're tired, and, after over a half a century, the goal hasn't been reached...... But, we look at our children, our grandchildren, friends, families, and we consider, for a moment, all of those that will follow when we're gone... and we continue on. It can get better, but it will take all of us.

You have a few moments each day when you could expend some energy outward, we all do, use a small portion of that time to make the world a better place. Campaign for what is right, stand up for those that need our support, advocate for peace, equality and justice, feed the hungry, shelter those that are homeless, care for each other.

But...it will take ALL of us, encourage others to open their hearts to change...

I hope tomorrow brings a better day... Peace....
posted by HuronBob at 10:40 PM on April 17, 2013 [44 favorites]


LET'S GO RANGERS/ASTROS/COWBOYS/TEXANS.

Everyone.
posted by vrakatar at 10:41 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I can't bring myself to look at footage or photos. I saw one photo of the Boston thing (just pavement and blood, no people) and I've seen one photo of a gray cloud over the Sonic in West and that's enough evidence of needless human suffering for me for a while, I think. The reports I can read are upsetting enough.

It's odd; I watch shows like Walking Dead and Spartacus and I'm not bothered by the violence and even find it comical at times. I play games like Fallout 3/NV on full gore mode, but... very little tolerance for the real thing or anything close to it. I once had pretty routine reconstructive knee surgery; my parents have a video of the procedure. I've never watched it and never will.

Which is not to say I think anyone's being ghoulish by checking out the photos or videos. If you can stomach them and relate them here in a sensitive way (as people have been doing), that's very much appreciated, even if I'll try to avoid seeing the images myself.

I was about to post a smartass "this week can stop blowing shit up any time" update on FB but thought better of it... I'm in Texas and most of my friends and family are too; who knows who has loved ones affected, and reading something like that wouldn't really be helpful or comforting.

Hoping for the best in West. Expecting it will be pretty bad.
posted by scatter gather at 10:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Getting a strong smell at *address redacted*. Can you get a detector over there that can detect ammonia?"
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:48 PM on April 17, 2013


Short clip of the plant burning and exploding. Warning: kinda terrifying.
posted by mecran01 at 10:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


In trying to research current standards/tech/specs in industry safety standards for fertilizer/ammonia/anhydrous ammonia plants I've come up nearly completely blank. I don't know if OSHA or states of the feds require things like berms that ceribus peribus mentioned up thread. However, while searching I found the Center for Chemical Process Safety's 9th Global Congress on Process Safety this month in San Antonio. I'm guessing that will be an interesting conference. If there are any MeFites attending, hopefully we'll hear something afterword. It would be so great if someone like metafilter's own Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG could tackle something like this in-depth.

Best of luck to those in West, TX. Here's hoping for some good news for everyone soon.
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 10:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


ColdChef's video link was very intense. I cannot fathom why anyone would deliberately bring a small child that close to a burning chemical plant.
posted by Justinian at 10:49 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a little hard-pressed to think of a big disaster where the final number of fatalities wasn't lower than initial estimates.

I'll give you one: the shooting and bombing in Norway. I was glued to the TV for hours (I live in Sweden and have Norwegian friends), and all they were reporting for a long time was the bombing in Oslo, and they were saying maybe 5-8 casualties. They also kept mentioning this other island, but they didn't have any real information.

So, I go away from the news, go to sleep, and wake up to find out that 77 people had died, most of them kids.

God-damn fucking shitty week this is.
posted by gkhan at 10:51 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yay, Reddit finally got a live updates thread going:
http://www.reddit.com/r/inthenews/comments/1ckxw7/live_update_thread_west_texas_fertilizer_plant/

This is something that Reddit tends to do really well, so I recommend the above for getting the latest information. It's common practice for retractions, changes, etc. to be reflected by updating with strikeout text, so you can easily see if something you heard/read earlier has been debunked or whatever.

Also, here are some useful comments from the original Reddit post, not sure if all their information has been incorporated into the live updates thread yet:

This guy is linking sources for each piece of information as he adds it:
http://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/1ckq0o/fertilizer_plant_explosion_in_waco_texas_some/c9hhywu

This guy isn't linking his sources, but I'm pretty sure that he's updating based on information reported over the live TV stream linked to from the parent comment:
http://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/1ckq0o/fertilizer_plant_explosion_in_waco_texas_some/c9hiqpy

VideoLinkBot is keeping an updated list of links to videos posted elsewhere in the thread:
http://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/1ckq0o/fertilizer_plant_explosion_in_waco_texas_some/c9hif9o

Notes from listening to EMS dispatch(?) from earlier this evening, no longer being live-updated:
http://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/1ckq0o/fertilizer_plant_explosion_in_waco_texas_some/c9hfuq8
posted by Jacqueline at 10:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


Justinian, I'm guessing they thought they were a safe distance away from that. It's the type of thing I would do with my (incredibly inquisitive, analytic, bright, fearless) daughter.

"Hey, we're several hundred yards away from a fire. Let's watch it for a while, cool?"

So when the kid starts doing that urgent, clear, direct "Get me out of here, Dad, get me out of here, get me out of here, get me out of here NOW", well, that's just the sort of thing my kid would do.

So that's why I'm in the living room bawling and trying not to wake up my wife and daughter.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [20 favorites]


ColdChef's video link was very intense. I cannot fathom why anyone would deliberately bring a small child that close to a burning chemical plant.

It's quite possible they were already close when it started burning. As someone who's never experienced or seen video of a fertilizer plant exploding, I would have no idea it would be liable to explode so... enormously.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:55 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Very irresponsible to bring a child next to a burning chemical plant, indeed. I hope she gets her hearing back.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:56 PM on April 17, 2013


The other video ColdChef posted seemed to be from even closer. Closer than I expected, actually. I would have thought whoever shot that one was well inside the danger zone from such a large explosion.
posted by Justinian at 10:59 PM on April 17, 2013


If that car in coldchef's video were moving, it may very well have flipped and killed them both.
posted by Ghost Mode at 11:01 PM on April 17, 2013


Everyone was gathered around to film the big fire at the plant across the road! and record the firefighting effort, which is how we ended up with live video of the explosion.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:04 PM on April 17, 2013


Very irresponsible to bring a child next to a burning chemical plant, indeed. I hope she gets her hearing back.

Borderline child abuse.
posted by socks are for puppets at 11:04 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Let's not start a derail about whether this was child abuse? ]
posted by taz at 11:05 PM on April 17, 2013 [50 favorites]


I am relying heavily on the thought that whoever shot any of those videos emerged unscathed in order to have posted it to the internet.
posted by ambrosia at 11:05 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


Can we not turn this into the thread about how well people understand the purposes and contents of all local buildings and the number of yards away one would need to be away from a fire at any of said buildings to be a good parent?
posted by crayz at 11:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [29 favorites]


It looks to me like the second video was shot from the parking lot of West Middle School. You can see the whole area in pretty decent detail with Google Maps satellite view.
posted by Justinian at 11:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


^ Justinian - I lost the source, but somewhere I saw that the person shooting that video was playing basketball at the middle school. So yeah, you're right.
posted by OHSnap at 11:09 PM on April 17, 2013


I can't look at any images of all this. Just knowing how close all of the residential stuff (filled with families at that time of night!) is to that plant is enough to make me sick to my stomach and sad without giving my brain pictures to work from.

All I want to do is help. They're saying that we should give to the local Red Cross and donate blood. It sounds like we have to go to Waco to donate...I don't know if I can do that, so I'm hoping there will be a "sharing" drive that we can participate in here in Austin.

Pretty sure any parents who brought their kids close to harm (or worse) are feeling pretty horrible right now without our help.
posted by batmonkey at 11:11 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then to give people an idea, the damaged retirement home is roughly the same distance away from the blast as that video was shot, perhaps very very slightly closer, and there are something like 25 homes which are the same distance or closer. There are some homes which look really, really close to the tank which exploded. I hope those people evacuated when the fire happened. I can't imagine they did not, but you can never be sure.
posted by Justinian at 11:12 PM on April 17, 2013


The Guardian has its live update feed up for this story.

(If I've learned one thing this week, it's that The Guardian does excellent vetting of its live feed items.)
posted by OHSnap at 11:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Shows Up on Google Maps
posted by homunculus at 11:27 PM on April 17, 2013


god no

my husband is from boston

my daddy is from texas

jesus christ WHAT IS THIS SHIT
posted by dogheart at 11:32 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe a glimmer of good news from a reporter at the Waco Tribune:

Lowell Brown ‏@LowellMBrown

#Westexplosion victims suffering mostly from injuries expected from flying debris, hospital CEO says. Many treated+released already.
posted by OHSnap at 11:46 PM on April 17, 2013


Also, does it seem weird that the NYT still has nothing about this on their site?
posted by pdq at 11:47 PM on April 17, 2013


pdq: This has a timestamp of 42 minutes ago.
posted by mosessis at 11:50 PM on April 17, 2013


It's there, it's just not the lead story. There's a link on the front page as well. It is 3 a.m. on the East Coast, and this is a very emergent story without very many available facts yet.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:51 PM on April 17, 2013


It was on the front page about an hour ago, but not headlining.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:51 PM on April 17, 2013


It took CBS until 1:30a to break into Craig Ferguson with a few meager details and the cell phone video footage.
posted by OHSnap at 11:52 PM on April 17, 2013


Huffpo isn't leading with it, either.
posted by empath at 12:01 AM on April 18, 2013


And now it's a lead story (on NYT).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:05 AM on April 18, 2013


I couldn't stand to click on any of the picture links in the Boston thread, and I can't stand to click on any of them here either. The words alone are horrible enough.

Oh Texas I am so sad to hear this. Take care of each other. We're thinking of you.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:09 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I live here in Texas. We have extended family around Waco. Fuck. Why does this keep happening?

Please no Texas bashing, I can't take it. We are people too.
posted by Malice at 12:20 AM on April 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


Uniformed guy at a press conference on the news just now confirmed that several firefighters are missing and also said that at least one police officer may be as well.
posted by XMLicious at 12:23 AM on April 18, 2013


For some reason, this got me.

Me, too, emjaybee. Old folks' vulnerability just grabs my heart. Would that I were there to sit with them in solidarity and support.

Stay strong, Texas comrades. Long days ahead.
posted by nacho fries at 12:31 AM on April 18, 2013


So, I am rather fond of West, comma, Texas, little knot of Czech immigrants halfway between Dallas and Austin. Obviously, there are the hemisphere's best kolaches - everybody that's driven I-35 more than once has stopped at the Czech Stop to get a kolache or six (or a deviled egg, or Oma's Special Jerky). And if you venture further into town, there's the Village Bakery, the Czech Cafe... We talked to the guys who run the Happy Sparrow last time we were up in Portland, and that's the entire aim and mission statement of their business, to bring the West-style kolache to Oregon.

West has the most bizarrely laid-out downtown, it's... the railroad runs parallel within a few yards of Main Street. So you have all the downtown businesses, Slovak Realty and the Christian bookstore and such, on one side of Main Street, looking out over a town-length corridor of empty space. You can walk along the railroad tracks and see the laid-open heart of the town. They have Nor's Sausage and Burger Haus, where they have a somewhat... challenging garlic-sausage burger, and where the owner fussed over me all meal and ended up giving me her business card. (Which I've long since lost, or I'd check it against the injured list.) They have the feeble-groan-worthy local landmark The Czech Inn. They, randomly, in the middle of Texas, have a full-service gas station, where a stick-figure teenager came loping out from the service bay as I was getting out to pump, and we stood there staring puzzled at each other. There's a West Fest on Labor Day with beer and polka, that I've never quite gotten to. It is a thoroughly lovely little town, about as far from King-of-the-Hill Texas suburbia as you can imagine. And here we are, and this has happened. Be well, West.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:37 AM on April 18, 2013 [39 favorites]


Been there ormondsacker, you aren't exaggerating. Such a delight to go through there on the way back from visiting in-laws.
posted by Malice at 12:43 AM on April 18, 2013


Jesus. This and Boston have reminded me that I lapsed in my participation in the local civil disaster help group. And haven't given blood in a while. Time to get back in the swing and help where one can.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:01 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Damn, seeing the photos and videos from this reminded me of nothing so much as the 2000 Enschede fireworks disaster that largely devastated that town.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having relentlessly predicted that this sort of thing was going to be happening a lot more, I'm still really upset and sad about it.

Why have I said this? I read a lot regarding the Deep Water Horizon and it seemed to clear to me that everyone seems to be cutting everything, particularly safety, to the bone while pushing their workers to the brink.

I fear my predictions will continue to be right, and I'm not happy, but I fear we're entering a perfect storm where disasters will keep increasing: a push for profits over everything, particularly safety; a knowledge that the rule of law just isn't there so you can cause any havoc you like and the worst that can happen is that you lose some money; a deeply demoralized, overworked and undertrained workforce; cuts to inspectors as part of a larger series of austerity cuts; a large number of people with legitimate reasons to be very angry at the system and nothing to lose; and over everything, the grim spectre of climate change.

I assume the response to this will be the same as to Deepwater Horizon - the state will take the brunt of the damage and the company and stockholders that own this company will be protected from liability.

I can certainly predict that no matter what sort of gross negligence is found at this plant, no senior manager will ever serve a day in jail no matter how many people died. After the people who ran Bhopal got off - heck, never even saw the inside of a courtroom - people who deliberately did not ring the accident sirens, knowing for certain that by doing that they were dooming some thousands of people to a horrible death but hoping they'd be able to suppress the whole accident before that happened - after these people got off from what should have been four thousand cases of murder by depraved indifference I realized that, like so many other things, the system is set up to make any sort of punishment for managers of limited liability corporations absolutely impossible, no matter how many thousands of people they kill.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:31 AM on April 18, 2013 [58 favorites]


This quote has been going around online this week, following the terrible events in Boston. It seems doubly appropriate to post it now:

Fred Rogers often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world."

I do so love that man. He was a born helper, and here's hoping his words help some of us feel a little better today.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:37 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


[Understood that there are many issues hovering around this tragedy, but just a reminder that questions of regulation and capitalism can easily overtake the entire discussion, and it's early hours yet -- so let's just be mindful of that, and try to keep things a bit focused. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 1:46 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Short clip of the plant burning and exploding. Warning: kinda terrifying.
posted by mecran01


Here's the thing. I have all sorts of views/thoughts on what has happened over recent days in both Boston and now in West, Texas. Most of which I don't share because they add nothing, or at the best, very little to what has happened. I take the injunctions of the mods to heart. But that little girl pleading to get out of there touched me in a way I can't quite express. It was so pure, so unambiguous. All of my petty points of view and prejudices vanished when I heard that. We adults are all grown up; yeah, I know. But that child's voice....
posted by vac2003 at 2:04 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Dear This Week,

fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou

Signed, America
posted by DigDoug at 2:20 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Why?
posted by basicchannel at 2:29 AM on April 18, 2013


Monday and Wednesday… They are getting worse. What the fuck is going to happen on Friday? God, all those poor people.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:29 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I fear we're entering a perfect storm where disasters will keep increasing: a push for profits over everything, particularly safety

Similar discussion over safety happened in Philadelphia, back when Sun and PGW (the city's gas utility) wanted to build an LNG terminal in Port Richmond, only a mile or two north of downtown and 3-4 miles away from the international airport and a major oil refinery, and — worst of all — sitting in a somewhat dense population of city residents. If the LNG terminal was to explode (for whatever reason), people as far away as a mile would suffer second-degree burns; anyone closer would likely be hurt worse or killed. A chunk of I-95 and a northbound Septa train line would disappear, which would bring transportation in the Northeast to a halt for several months, if not a couple years. PGW was already trying to cut costs for improved safety of gas storage facilities even before construction, but the city council thankfully voted against the project, effectively killing it. It's a constant fight in one milieu or another.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:42 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


More updates from The Waco Tribune: "Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center had treated more than 100 patients as of midnight, including 14 that likely would have to be admitted, but no patients had died, CEO Glenn Robinson said. Victims suffered mostly from cuts, broken bones and other injuries expected from flying debris, he said. Many had been treated and released.

More than 30 victims of the West explosion were transferred to Waco’s Providence Hospital, and about nine went to a burn center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas for treatment, Robinson said. Two injured children were transferred to McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple."
posted by OHSnap at 2:48 AM on April 18, 2013


Guardian liveblog: Waco police are giving another update at a press conference: they estimate the death toll could be between five and 15.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:52 AM on April 18, 2013


Also they quoted a reporter earlier saying there were "at least 160 people injured".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:53 AM on April 18, 2013


Profits before people. 'Regulations and orgs like the EPA stifle business' they cry'. They also help avoid disasters like this.
posted by Burgatron at 2:54 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Another press conference on the national news, same guy speaking as before. He says that the number of fatalities is currently between 5 and 15, 160 injured (although CNN displayed a map with numbers of patients next to each hospital that totaled more than 160, maybe that was total beds filled or something?) He also said that there was no indication this was the result of any crime but the area was being treated as a crime scene and federal agencies like the ATF are involved.
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 AM on April 18, 2013


More from the press conference:
This briefing, still going on, is from Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton from Waco’s police dept, who has spoken before. He's also said:

• There are three to five firefighters missing.

• Some homes near the centre of the blat have been "levelled".

• There is no indication yet of criminal involvement in the blast.

• There is not believed to be any hazard from smoke or air particles, and firefighters believe they have the blaze in the plant under control.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:55 AM on April 18, 2013


Oh man, people can't catch a break this week.
posted by ersatz at 2:57 AM on April 18, 2013



• There is no indication yet of criminal involvement in the blast.

I would consider the possibility of the Board of Directors' negligence rising to criminal levels to be quite real. They should be held for questioning at the earliest opportunity so that they cannot conspire to cover up any possible criminal acts they have committed.
posted by mikelieman at 3:21 AM on April 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


This was on the Guardian blog earlier:
The fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West, Texas, reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and local public safety officials that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, documents show.

West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

But the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries.

The plan says the facility did not have any other dangerous chemicals on hand. It says that the plan was on file with the local fire department and that the company had implemented proper safety rules.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


What appears to have happened was they sprayed water on burning ammonium nitrate, which created a huge endothermic reaction and blew up the plant.

Pouring water onto AN is a decidedly endothermic reaction -- it makes things very cold. This is how those break-and-shake cold packs work.

However, AN, when it decomposes, generates a lot of heat, which is a risk in large piles. When AN is warm, it becomes easier for it to decompose, which generates more heat. When you reach a certain point, it runs away, and if there's enough compression, say, from the mass of the pile itself, it can then detonate.

Or, of course, when you're using sticks of dynamite to loosen up a big pile of the stuff, see the Oppau Explosion. Note that they knew about this, but thought if you had a mixture that was more than 40% ammonium sulphate, it was safe. And, truth be told, they used dynamite to break up large, rock-hard clumps of AN/AS a lot -- some 20,000 times before the explosion.

But still.
posted by eriko at 3:31 AM on April 18, 2013


But the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks.

That's not negligence anymore.
posted by mikelieman at 3:35 AM on April 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm trying to figure out how ammonia explodes like this. The stuff in pure form is hard to burn -- not because it isn't flammable, but because the temperature of its flame is lower than the ignition temp.

Indeed, the reason the world has been moving to anhydrous ammonia, rather than AN, for fertilizer use is that it's not useful as an explosive.

You *don't* want to mix it with halogens, but rule number #1 of an ammonia plant is to keep halogens well away.

Either I'm missing something (which is *very* possible, kids), there was actually AN involved, rather than NH3, or something else was in that plant that should have been nowhere near it.

For example, dumping a bunch of iodine into that ammonia would have been a very bad idea. Nitrogen triiodide makes nitroglycerin look stable -- it's so unstable that being hit by alpha particles is enough to set it off. When you can't even handle a helium nucleus, you are one touchy SOB.
posted by eriko at 3:42 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


For example, dumping a bunch of iodine into that ammonia would have been a very bad idea. Nitrogen triiodide makes nitroglycerin look stable -- it's so unstable that being hit by alpha particles is enough to set it off. When you can't even handle a helium nucleus, you are one touchy SOB.

Iodine is used in some fertilizers, isn't it?
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:02 AM on April 18, 2013


I swore I wouldn't listen to the fire ground radio, but as a former small town volunteer firefighter I just couldn't help it and it's breaking my heart. The dispatchers who were probably relatives of the firefighters themselves, hearing the call for all available units to go to West, people being reminded to check in when they arrive so everyone's accounted for... it's everything that I remember. Dedication, pride in your work, love for your community.

I remember one guy who would come out of a burning building and light up a cigarette "for a breath of fresh air." The early morning bullshit sessions around the front of the fire trucks long after the fire was out, just hanging around. I loved these guys, they were the best.

Take care, West. Holding you in my heart.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 4:15 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Waking up to reports of 15 known dead (instead of 60), but there's still an unknown number missing. CNN is talking about Boston, Boston, Boston while the scene in West is just starting to be lit by the day's first light.
posted by item at 4:49 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West, Texas, reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and local public safety officials that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, documents show.

This is so tragically, massively untrue, someone was either committing fraud, or is negligent to the point of manslaughter.

(Googling around, iodine is used as a component in 4-iodophenoxyacetic acid, a fertilizer supplement used for citrus pest control. I can't determine if the plant was involved in making that, but if their engineers put a tank of iodine next to their anhydrous ammonia tank, someone needs to go to jail for that.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:51 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doesn't anhydrous ammonia get very hot when it touches water? Could there have been a leak, leading to a steam explosion that touched off the ammonium nitrate?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:57 AM on April 18, 2013


I love these "negligence" and "someone should go to jail" comments. Reminds me of a world I would like to live in; one where corporate wrongdoing on a large scale was met with anything other than a fine, a consent decree, and no admission of fault or guilt.

Zero people have been charged with a crime related to the Deepwater Horizon, for instance. I am sure we could fill a thread with other similar examples.
posted by andreaazure at 5:01 AM on April 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


I grew up in Waco. As a kid I once went to a Czech wedding in West. It was like entering another world. The service was early in the morning and then seemingly the entire town adjourned to the local fraternal hall. I have never seen so much food. I was told the women of West had been cooking all week in preparation. The beer flowed incessantly as did the live polka music. The bride, who worked for my dad in Waco, was required to wear her full length wedding dress all day although she could take off her shoes. This was good because she also had to polka with any man who asked her all day as well, including the priest.

The oddest bit was when the bride sat in a chair in the middle of the dance floor and everyone gathered around her. Still in her dress, she took a plate and put it between her knees as a target. The menfolk lined up and gently tossed silver dollars at the plate so as to not break it. That honor was reserved for the groom, but only after there was a pile of silver at her feet. As a preadolescent the ...er... symbolism of the practice escaped me at the time.

My heart goes out to the wonderful people of that little town...
posted by jim in austin at 5:03 AM on April 18, 2013 [34 favorites]


Awful news to wake up to.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:05 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


T.S. Eliot was right. April IS the cruelest month.

My heart goes out to all those affected by this latest tragedy.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:11 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


For anyone who was upset by the video of the explosion of the little girl screaming about her hearing: she was just on the Today show with her father. Her ears are a little sore, but her hearing is fine. Her father sounded scared and contrite.
posted by ColdChef at 5:12 AM on April 18, 2013 [44 favorites]


CNN buries the lede: the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant's report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn't be that dire: there would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

posted by ook at 5:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would consider the possibility of the Board of Directors' negligence rising to criminal levels to be quite real.

You and me both. Apparently MSDS and OSHA mandated safety meetings are socialism or something.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:31 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


West fertilizer is a seller, not a manufacturer. They sell anhydrous ammonia. They aren't making it or any other fertilizers. It's not a multinational corporation. It's not even a statewide corporation. It's a family owned business that shares a property with another business the family owns, which is grain elevators.

I don't know what caused the explosion. Neither do any of you. How about we find out what caused it before calling for the heads of over-payed CEOs sitting in air conditioned high rise offices, which do not exist in this case.
posted by Orb at 5:32 AM on April 18, 2013 [42 favorites]


... she was just on the Today show with her father.
posted by marsha56 at 5:37 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's been a tough week for those who care about others.
posted by tommasz at 5:43 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Re: what and where facilities of this type can and can't be built.

Per local news (I'm in Dallas), the facility was built in the fifties. My take is as regulations evolve, things get grandfathered in. Plus, try to make an entire neighborhood abandon their houses because now you know it might be unsafe to be near a fertilizer facility. It's so easy to say now that it was clearly a dangerous situation, but ten years ago when they tried to make your grandmother give up the house she'd raised her children in, you'd have been outraged.
posted by double bubble at 6:08 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


As of 6 AM this morning, the interstate between Waco and Dallas is not shut down and there don't seem to be major hold-ups although they do have a sign hauled out that says to take an alternate route. I suspect that's due as much to the fumes as anything. Our driver said you could really smell it as you drove through the area. I really feel for the people in that town - West is not exactly a prosperous, thriving metropolis. Now is an excellent time to donate to the Red Cross if you have been considering doing so or have donated in the past.
posted by PuppyCat at 6:10 AM on April 18, 2013


I'm sure glad ABC News is showing video of the fire at the Branch-Dravidian compound way back when, because now I have a good mental image of what's going on.
posted by sneebler at 6:14 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Things need to stop exploding for like, five minutes.

All my love to West, Texas from Boston.
posted by sonika at 6:14 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


• There is no indication yet of criminal involvement in the blast.

I would consider the possibility of the Board of Directors' negligence rising to criminal levels to be quite real. They should be held for questioning at the earliest opportunity so that they cannot conspire to cover up any possible criminal acts they have committed.


This is one of those cases where, if there wasn't legally something wrong with the events that led up to the disaster, it's a failure of the law. It doesn't mean it's a failure of this particular company or particular individuals, rather it's a societal failure that has permitted the confluence of events.
posted by odinsdream at 6:15 AM on April 18, 2013


Thanks marsha76, now that clip is just scary, not nauseating.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:22 AM on April 18, 2013


LET'S GO RANGERS/ASTROS/COWBOYS/TEXANS.

Okay, look, we can feel sympathetic to the good people living in Texas who have been affected by this horrible tragedy without cheering for their awful sports teams, can't we?
posted by mightygodking at 6:47 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't bring myself to look at the videos, having seen the pictures of the billowing clouds and fires.

There are many areas in Texas (I can't speak for anywhere else) where the towns have grown up around the petrochemical and other chemical plants. I grew up in an area where we would occasionally be kept in at recess due to a "release" from one of the plants. Many of my friends lived cheek-by-jowl with them. When you're growing up you don't know anything different, that's just how it is, and not everyone can afford to just move away from them. For better or worse it's a normal part of the landscape, and you get used to all the lights and the burn-off towers and the occasional funny smell that has you wondering if your life expectancy is being lowered even as you breathe.

People I know and love still live around the plants and work in them. You do think about this happening, but you can't think about it all the time or you'll go mad. There's a certain suspension of disbelief.

If you'd like to read about another terrible tragedy that seems to have a bit in common with the West explosion, please read City on Fire, about the 1947 Texas City explosion.

I'm heartsick over this and the people who don't understand that these people aren't necessarily complicit in their fate by living next to the plant aren't making it any better. There are dangers all around all of us and we just deal.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:54 AM on April 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


holy shit, that first video

i don't have it in me to look at anything else with this. that was terrifying... i just want to curl up for a while under my desk. hearing a child in fear triggers all sorts of things for me, and it's bad enough seeing how close it was for them, but knowing that moment i just watched was a firey death for so many people is nauseating.

i think that one will be the last i look at - i don't ever want to be so desensitized to this sort of thing that i don't feel this way.
posted by MysticMCJ at 6:56 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Per local news (I'm in Dallas), the facility was built in the fifties. My take is as regulations evolve, things get grandfathered in. Plus, try to make an entire neighborhood abandon their houses because now you know it might be unsafe to be near a fertilizer facility. It's so easy to say now that it was clearly a dangerous situation, but ten years ago when they tried to make your grandmother give up the house she'd raised her children in, you'd have been outraged.

I think I'd be more outraged that they wouldn't consider moving the damn plant instead of a lot of people out of their homes. Surely that would be easier.

But local politics around these things is always a tangled mess. People are possessive of their town, and don't like outsiders coming in to tell them what to do, so my opinion on the subject wouldn't be worth much.

This reminds me of that heartbreaking NPR story last month about the kids who died working in a grain silo due to unsafe practices. One of the mothers was distraught but also torn because it was a local family business and she knew the owners, who were "good people" and nice, but also responsible for her son drowning in an avalanche of grain. Probably going to be a lot of similar feelings here.
posted by emjaybee at 6:59 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good news: Czech Stop is open for business.
posted by ColdChef at 7:04 AM on April 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


eriko, thanks for the science breakdowns/mullings/hypotheses, your contributions are always appreciated.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:06 AM on April 18, 2013


In the press conference just held, the Waco PD guy said that 5-15 firefighters were still unaccounted for. This would seem to suggest that potentially ALL the fatalities were emergency workers? How awful for that volunteer fire department.
posted by torticat at 7:08 AM on April 18, 2013


Christ. When this got mentioned in the other thread, I kind of assumed it was a big explosion in the middle of nowhere, not a big explosion in a town. Because apparently I know nothing about where you build fertilizer plants.

Wait, are, fertilizer plants built in the middle of towns, as practice? I mean, I would guess that anything remotely chemical would be regulated-the-hell-out-of.

Typically, high-risk industrial activity is situated near lower-income communities and communities of color. Sadly, there isn't nearly as much regulation about such things in the US as in the rest of the developed world.

I find it heartening at least that the death and injury numbers for more recent industrial disasters aren't as bad as the death tolls from industrial disasters in the early 1900s, even though many industries have successfully lobbied for a fair amount of deregulation in recent decades. (That is, looking at deregulation of the financial industry and its effects, the situation for safety regulation in heavy industry could be worse. The 2008 financial crisis and industrial accidents like this, Deepwater Horizon, the recent pipeline spills in Arkansas and other places, etc. are certainly all part of a common theme related to distribution of economic and political power in the US, but the mods say to leave this topic for later.) Advances in knowledge of how to respond to industrial accidents/disasters play a role in that, of course, and the first responders deserve major props.
posted by eviemath at 7:09 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


... she was just on the Today show with her father.

I was very glad to see that clip on the Today Show, to find out they were okay and the kid apparently didn't suffer long-term hearing loss. But during their interview, there was this sound in the background that sounded (to my untrained city-girl ears) like constantly mooing cows. Does anybody know what that's about? Is everybody huddled together in one area with livestock, or was that some other sound?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:10 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ugh, my heart goes out to West. There's a typical spring storm right now which means light/heavy rain and high winds. If you are in the area there are many local organizations taking donations for displaced families.
the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant's report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn't be that dire: there would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.
This doesn't seem like an automatic contradiction of what has happened. I'm been involved in a couple emergency planning meetings for a chemical plant, and we don't consider things like, "What happens if two unrelated safety systems happen to fail simultaneously?" The recognition is that we can't prevent every accident, but let's absolutely prevent the likeliest ones and plan for the unlikely ones. It's possible that the plant was criminally unsafe. It's possible that they were storing chemicals that weren't part of their original certification. It's possible that people at the original meetings did not have the right know-how to accurately predict emergency events. It's also possible that this was a confluence of unlucky factors. I don't really trust any particular journalist to be able to digest a hazard analysis. Texas does have environmental, chemical safety, and OSHA regulations that plants and storage facilities must follow. There will be an investigation. Politicians will grandstand. There will be lawsuits.
posted by muddgirl at 7:15 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe it's not time just yet in this thread, but Lupus_wonderboy is onto something, and I think it's not out of place here to note that many municipalities, on their way down into the deficit hole, have been cutting back on emergency services. Last night, shortly before this accident, I attended the annual meeting of our region's emergency mutual aid dispatch organization. We're blessed with a highly functional volunteer emergency services infrastructure here, and even so, we struggle to maintain it in terms of funding and recruitment.

As was said in the Boston thread, and many others, one of the best ways you can channel the rage and sadness from these things is to get involved. You don't have to be a 220 lb hunk to be a firefighter, and you can start your basic fire or EMS training at any age. The rewards are substantially more than an antidote to helpless feelings (which you'll have sometimes anyway).

In my opinion, we're in a vulnerable spot between peak oil and the disintegrating mythology of progress our culture doesn't like to question. The facility that just exploded is part of a modern agriculture system that relies on unsustainable inputs of concentrated energy. Not wanting to verge into derail territory, but I think you made some good and relevant points LW.
posted by maniabug at 7:17 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Scratch my last comment, WaPo apparently corrected that blog post. Actually I'm not sure what's up with their live update, that post appeared, disappeared, came back saying something different, and then disappeared again.
posted by torticat at 7:21 AM on April 18, 2013


As another former EMT this seems like a good place to remind people about the "rule of thumb" for burning chemical incidents and spills, back up until you can completely obscure the site of the incident with your thumb with one eye closed. If you need to be closer than that someone will tell you.
My thoughts and prayers go out to this community.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 7:23 AM on April 18, 2013 [25 favorites]


The plant's report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn't be that dire: there would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

This doesn't seem like an automatic contradiction of what has happened. I'm been involved in a couple emergency planning meetings for a chemical plant, and we don't consider things like, "What happens if two unrelated safety systems happen to fail simultaneously?"


I would certainly consider it a contradiction - that's exactly what I thought a worst-case scenario was supposed to be, that you consider what would happen if everything possible went wrong at once.
posted by Azara at 7:25 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Good rule, similar to if the driver of the overturned tractor trailer runs past you on your way to the scene, turn around and follow him...
posted by maniabug at 7:26 AM on April 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


I would certainly consider it a contradiction - that's exactly what I thought a worst-case scenario was supposed to be, that you consider what would happen if everything possible went wrong at once.

Like I said, it depends on what the report actually says, and I haven't seen a link to it. Reports like that don't usually talk about "worst case scenarios" as a general category because as you say, the worst case scenarios would involve every safety system and backup safety system failing at the same time, which is extremely unlikely, and the plan for that would be a tertiary safety system (and then what if that fails? And what if the fourth-line safety system fails, too? and the fifth-line? into infinity).
posted by muddgirl at 7:36 AM on April 18, 2013


Scratch my last comment, WaPo apparently corrected that blog post. Actually I'm not sure what's up with their live update, that post appeared, disappeared, came back saying something different, and then disappeared again.

I think what happened is that the Waco officer that gave the briefing does not have any details, is not directly involved in what is happening on the ground in West, and is clearly unaccustomed to speaking to the press. I watched the briefing - he talked for a very long time without giving much information. It's easy in that sort of circumstance to get things mixed up. What I heard him say is that 3-5 firefighters are unaccounted for and 5-15 are believed dead so far, but no numbers have been confirmed by anyone with direct knowledge.
posted by Dojie at 7:37 AM on April 18, 2013


Yeah. The WaPo blogger conflated the two and initially reported that the officer had said 5-15 firefighters were still missing. Which I should have been able to tell was a misunderstanding, since the numbers were the same as the potential fatalities.
posted by torticat at 7:52 AM on April 18, 2013


Live footage of the damage on now. The helicopter is still being kept 3 miles out, but wow.
posted by Dojie at 7:58 AM on April 18, 2013


A little moment of levity in this incident: public radio had an interview this morning with a woman who lives in West and her 11 year old son. They had been out at, I think, a park in West, kicking around a football when the explosion occurred.

The son -- with that amazing blend of braggadocio and seriousness 11 year olds are capable of -- claimed he had been thrown forty feet into the air, and his Mom was all, "No, no, sweetie, not that high."

My wife has family in North Richland Hills and Weatherford, and I can't count the number of times I've gone up and down I-35 in the past 14 years to visit them. No matter how awful the drive is -- and I'm sure a bunch of folks in this thread know just how bad 35 can be, especially when you need to be on it for holiday travel -- I always smile when we pass through West. Thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:21 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


My sister is an ED nurse in Waco, who fortunately lives on the other side of town from this. She got the disaster response call and went in to help. I am very proud of her, and very grateful that she's ok.
posted by Lafe at 8:27 AM on April 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


I haven't had a chance to talk to my dad yet today. He's the safety officer for the farm coop in my home town, very much in charge of minimizing the chances that accidents like this will happen. This hits very close to home, far closer than Boston. Both events are terrible but the smalltown kid in me can empathize with West on a scale that's just not possible with Boston. Someone upthread mentioned a wedding in West, with the entire town turning out. That will happen again for every funeral. The town celebrates as one, the town grieves as one.

@Eriko I'm trying to figure out how ammonia explodes like this. The stuff in pure form is hard to burn -- not because it isn't flammable, but because the temperature of its flame is lower than the ignition temp.

I'm guessing that the anhydrous ammonia wasn't the initial cause of the fire. Something else probably started the blaze elsewhere at the plant (electrical fire, overheating bearing on an auger/conveyor, etc.) that provided enough energy to cookoff the ANH storage. Or it just went up along with everything else when the ammonium nitrate exploded.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:29 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're in Texas and would like to donate blood that will stay local (i.e., in-state and likely to get to the West victims who need it the fastest), here's a link to the Carter BloodCare Donation Center page.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:58 AM on April 18, 2013


The Austin American-Statesman has a Storify list of ways for people to help locally.
posted by donajo at 9:01 AM on April 18, 2013


Slate: Why Do We Use Explosive Fertilizer?
posted by exogenous at 9:09 AM on April 18, 2013


This is really devastating. West is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and their parents, and their kids. There's only one high school. The losses and the grief are going to be profound on such a small town.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:41 AM on April 18, 2013


I think it's not out of place here to note that many municipalities, on their way down into the deficit hole, have been cutting back on emergency services.

Another thing that's important to point out, though, is that volunteer fire departments (the VFD) have always been the norm in small Texas towns. I don't think this is a finger we should be pointing just right now.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:01 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Czech Stop nothing, the place to eat in West is Nors Sausage and Burger House for the garlic sausage-burger.

He said, lamely and helplessly, assuming that it's still standing and the owner isn't dead.


From the Guardian Live Feed -

"Shivering from the cold as he stood outside the family's restaurant, Nors Sausage and Burger House, Matt Nors reflected on his sister's lucky escape.

"My sister was really close to it," he said, adding that she lives within 500 yards of the blast. "I haven't seen the house but supposedly it's demolished," he said.

Nors lives five miles from West. "The first thing that went into my mind was a nuclear bomb," he said. "I was standing in my garage flipping meat on the grill. The shock wave felt like somebody hit me in the gut."

Inside the restaurant, his father, Bernie, said that he knew four firefighters who had been killed. "They were fighting the fire when it blew up," he said.

He lives four miles away, next to a field. "When it blew up you could see the shock wave hit the wheat field, boom," he said.

Matt Nors said that West is "really close-knit. Real family-oriented. Something like this happens, there's no shortage of help."

He said that the potential danger of living so close to the plant was never a consideration in a rural community that depends on agriculture for jobs. "It's never been a concern. This was never even a thought, an issue," he said."
posted by hillabeans at 10:08 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pictures of some of the damage
posted by Dojie at 10:12 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


mudpuppie: "Another thing that's important to point out, though, is that volunteer fire departments (the VFD) have always been the norm in small Texas towns. I don't think this is a finger we should be pointing just right now."

I still don't understand why it's anathema for Americans to fund emergency services, or staff them with full-time professionals. We're not exactly living on the frontier anymore.

I certainly don't want to poo poo the spirit of volunteerism -- it's one of America's most distinctive attributes. However, I'd also love for the guys running into burning buildings to get compensated for it.
posted by schmod at 11:13 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jalopnik: Why Every Texan Knows Exactly Where West, Texas Is. They have a (happy!) update tweet on a certain tasty local landmark: "Happy to say the Czech Stop is open and serving breakfast to emergency workers. #westexplosion pic.twitter.com/gFS4MHdaHJ"
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:15 AM on April 18, 2013


.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:28 AM on April 18, 2013


I still don't understand why it's anathema for Americans to fund emergency services, or staff them with full-time professionals.
For comparison, the Austin Fire Department where I live has about a thousand firefighters serving a city of about a million people. Scale down to a city of 3,000, and you end up with a department with 3 firefighters. If you might occasionally need 33 firefighters instead, then most of those are not going to be full-time professionals.

I would agree with you that some hazard pay to them or their next of kin might be appropriate...
posted by roystgnr at 11:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'd also love for the guys running into burning buildings to get compensated for it.

I'm also in a small town with a volunteer fire department. I think part of the issue is that fires are rare enough that keeping people at the firehouse on the clock isn't a good use of small town funds. So people stay in town, with pagers, and are available at the drop of a hat to go to where there might be an emergency. And this is okay with their employers. They receive professional training and the money that is spent goes to keeping the truck and the firehouse maintained. Here's some information about a local FD that is nearby my town but smaller than my town. They responded to 28 emergencies in a year and eight of them were "mutual aid" which means they helped out folks in other towns. Employing even one full time person to deal with an issue every other week would seem nuts. This way they get 20 trained people on an on-call basis. And these towns are very poor, many of them. Unless we change the way municipal finding works in rural areas (a "hard problem" as they like to say) they literally can't afford to do this without, say, unfunding the library or something at the school.

The issue, as I see it, is that the money has to come from someplace. And places have long histories of how the money has gotten moved around. And we pay the plow guys, and the cemetary guys, and the cops (this varies by town but we all fund the state troopers). This is actually a thing that has been changing lately, in Vermont, as there has been more money around via grants and whatnot for policing. So some towns who maybe just had a constable now have police. But this is a cultural shift as much as it's a money shift. Having full-time police changes things, in good and bad ways.

This is a different issue, to my mind, than places who had professional fire fighters who then decided to opt out of having them anymore. Or the even stranger places that do it privately and the people who pay in get their fires put out. So, there are reasons, they may not be ones that people agree with. But we do have professionally trained firefighters (and especially in the larger towns and cities) they just don't all get paid to put out fires or to wait for fires.
posted by jessamyn at 11:30 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think, too, that the idea of the volunteer fire department is really entrenched in the culture, and is very much a part of the culture. It's a "we take care of our own" thing. Or at least it was where I grew up. (In a town about the size of West and about 60 miles north of there.)
posted by mudpuppie at 11:38 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


From the Guardian:

Standing outside The Village Shoppe, broom in hand, Joyce Beaubien said that she is concerned for a friend and former neighbour who works at the plant. "I haven't been able to get in touch with her," she said.

"People here are really shocked. The firefighters are all volunteers, they all live here, their families are here, it's just so devastating to people who've lived here all their lives."

"It's really devastating for a little town like this where nothing ever happens – except sometimes a person might get a little drunk."

The retired medical secretary, who now works part-time in the store, said that new housing as the town expanded in the past two decades meant the plant was no longer isolated as it used to be.

"The fertilizer plant was out in the country and they just built around it when I guess they shouldn't have," she said.

posted by mudpuppie at 11:54 AM on April 18, 2013


mudpuppie: " "The fertilizer plant was out in the country and they just built around it when I guess they shouldn't have," she said."

The blast zone:
I suppose one could say that everyone in this case had perfect freedom. The fertilizer plant owners had the freedom to run a plant without "big government" intrusion. The home builders had the freedom to sell their units wherever they saw fit to build. The home buyers had the freedom to assume irresponsibility on the part of the plant owner and the government, and take responsibility for themselves by not living near the plant. It was a conservative paradise of total economic liberty. No one could have foreseen what would happen. It was a tragedy. Instead of politicizing it, we should just pray for the victims. Wolverines.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


For those questioning why there's not a taxpayer-funded fire dept. for West, here's the per capita income listed for the city:

West city, Texas - $15,421

(For you non-USians, that's 11794.26 Euros, or 10088.97 British Pounds Sterling.)

Per City-data.com, estimated per capita income in 2009: $16,685

Land area: 1.56 square miles/2.510577 kilometers (population density: 1,813 per square mile)

The first dollar figure I listed above is apparently from the 2010 Census data, but in a town with a population of 3,000 people that's less than two square miles across, it's easy to see that their tax revenues would be quite low and unable to sustain a fully-funded FD for a town that size.

There's a wealth of additional interesting info here, including infographics, statistics, number of homes/buildings built per year, etc.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:05 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wolverines.

Can someone explain what Red Dawn has to do with this screed? Or do we just insert random WOOOOOOLVEEEEERINES into everyday speech now? Because I'm on board with that. Wolverines.
posted by Justinian at 12:12 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


A couple years ago there was a bill in VT for volunteer fire and EMS to get a tax credit, but I'm not familiar enough with the legislature to understand whether it died in committee or is still there. It's listed as In Committee for the 2011-2012 session, but not listed at all for 2013-2014 session and I don't know what that means.

Above, I certainly didn't intend to point any fingers. Determination of the appropriate size, funding, and structure of a town's emergency service is a complex question, and I believe both small volunteer orgs and large fully staffed ones have their places. Any region can have an incident that saturates its response capability.
posted by maniabug at 12:17 PM on April 18, 2013


> I'm been involved in a couple emergency planning meetings for a chemical plant, and we don't consider things like, "What happens if two unrelated safety systems happen to fail simultaneously?"

I'm an engineer - though not a mechanical engineer.

That seems to me to be gross negligence. I would have personally caused a scene in that meeting.

The issue is that failure modes for safety systems are heavily correlated with each other - even if the systems aren't. Look at Sandy as a perfectly good example - there was a massive explosion right across the river from where I was because two safety systems failed (but no one was injured so Con Ed got something right...) Fukushima is another example.

And it's very easy to come up with quite likely scenarios that result in multiple systems failures. This plant, for example, is built in an area with a moderate tornado risk. If a tornado actually hit the plant, it's easy to imagine that one safety system is taken out by the tornado, and another one goes down because you've already lost power due to the storm.

Now, there's some level of unlikelihood when you have to say, "There will be nothing we can do." You can't eliminate all risk. But a priori eliminating the case where two unrelated safety systems fail at the same time ignores the huge number of catastrophes sparked by exactly such an eventuality.

And again, it's one thing if you are, say, running a blast furnace. Blast furnaces have exploded in the past, people have been killed - but rarely, but in tiny numbers. Running a blast furnace isn't so hard - you have to keep putting energy into it to make it work, so if something goes wrong, it stops. The usual disaster involves the stack breaking and some workers in the plant being killed - nasty but rare and of limited external consequence.

But fertilizer plants - and fireworks factories and munitions factories. These are known to be problematic because you are constantly working with chemicals which simply have a lot of energy packed into them and can change state and become really touchy for a large number of reasons. If you screw up, you could kill hundreds of people. (Let's not talk about chemical plants...)

Getting back to this specific case, there's an issue that stands out for me - the failed "worst case" analysis.

"Worst case" is exactly that - "the worst possible thing that can happen". If something ever happens to your plant that is a lot worse than your worst case, your "worst case" was completely and utterly wrong.

Really, for "worst case" you need to be pretty creative. Google every year has fake disasters that they run in real time against their system and they're pretty creative - they all involve multiple "unrelated" failures. This is why your email is replicated in three different geographical locations and then replicated three times at each location... because they are engineers - and really, it doesn't cost that much more money to do it right.

There are two possibilities here. One is that these people are really really dumb and honestly believed that the worst, worst thing that could happen to this plant was a fart and a thump. The other is that they deliberately covered up the risks for fear that they wouldn't get the permits.

These days, I'm starting to not care about the difference. At a certain point, it's no longer an "honest mistake" - you're being paid to do a good job and the responsibility lies on you. Dunning-Kruger doesn't excuse the inept, it just explains their ineptness - and it particularly doesn't excuse their managers...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:23 PM on April 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


The fertilizer plant owners had the freedom to run a plant without "big government" intrusion.
I don't know where this claim comes from. They were subject to the same federal regulations as any other fertilizer storage facility in the US. Atkins already admitted that he is not an expert on Texas zoning or regulations, and neither am I. Are fertilizer storage facilities inherently unsafe? Do people who live, for example, in the mixed residential-commercial area of West Sacramento, which hosts one of Agrium Inc's dry fertilizer storage facilities need to move ASAP? This is just the first facility I've tracked down in a residential area - there seem to be many others. I think we need to be very careful that our biases aren't getting ahead of us.

There may be a very important story here regarding regulation of nitrogen fertilizer factories and storage facilities. We owe it to the people who live and work in all communities near these facilities to make sure we don't get focused on the fact that this particular explosion happened in Texas and not Sacramento, CA or Lackawanna, NY. Unless Texas has weaker regulations in this case than other states? Can anyone speak to that?

Getting back to this specific case, there's an issue that stands out for me - the failed "worst case" analysis.

I don't want to monopolize this conversation, but from what's been reported we have no idea if they were actually doing a worst case analysis or not. Again, I don't know. I haven't seen the report.

The issue is that failure modes for safety systems are heavily correlated with each other - even if the systems aren't.

Yes, 'independent' safety systems which are caused to fail by the same emergency, such as a power outage causing all powered systems to fail - would be considered in a hazard analysis. We'd also consider a power outage as a result of a fire to be a single event. I am not an expert in this matter, and we don't have any facts about this situation, so I was trying to speak in generalities. I should probably avoid that in the future.

There are two possibilities here. One is that these people are really really dumb and honestly believed that the worst, worst thing that could happen to this plant was a fart and a thump.

The third possibility is that the journalist was wrong about what they reported, or misunderstood the intent of the report. It wouldn't be the first time in the last couple days.
posted by muddgirl at 12:32 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are two possibilities here. One is that these people are really really dumb and honestly believed that the worst, worst thing that could happen to this plant was a fart and a thump. The other is that they deliberately covered up the risks for fear that they wouldn't get the permits.

Another engineer (mechanical, not that it matters really with regards to risk assessment) chiming in here with a third possibility. Third, an unexpected and unplanned for situation arose that precludes the safety measures that were in place. I've linked this book on mefi before and I'll link it again because it's simply the best way I can encourage people to understand that engineering is a process whereby we learn from our failures, not successes.

I'm not saying my postulate is the case, or even the most likely thing here, but to propose that every failure mode for a given situation is known and can be planned for is to be intentionally and willfully ignorant. To claim that the people involved, from inspectors to policy makers (much as I loathe them 9 times out of 10) to owners to operators, were without a doubt either uneducated or criminally negligent is.... yea, it's asshole-ish.

Sure, they could be, but damn hold your horses before you go about casting stones.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:34 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


By the way, if you're interested in disastrous explosions, the Halifax Explosion perhaps isn't so well known to Americans but was the largest human-made explosion before the atom bomb, killing about 2000 people, 1600 almost instantly - and the chemistry is fairly similar I believe to what happened in this one.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:35 PM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


muddgirl: "I don't know where this claim comes from. They were subject to the same federal regulations as any other fertilizer storage facility in the US."

I can't speak for Atkins, but my interpretation was that he was referring to the fact that they weren't inspected by OSHA for the past five years. That's not to say that there was no other regulation, or that it's their fault for not being inspected, but you can draw a straight line from "small government" conservatism to de-funding of regulatory agencies which leads to them not having the resources to provide adequate inspections.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:48 PM on April 18, 2013


The issue isn't necessarily lack of regulations and rules. We have gutted the budgets for the enforcement agencies. So even when rules are in place it is difficult to make are they are enforced. There was also a push towards voluntary compliance instead of mandates over the last decade. The idea being that we could set standards with industry and they would comply voluntarily. The goal was to make things less adversarial. However in some instances people have ignored the standards.
posted by humanfont at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Third, an unexpected and unplanned for situation arose that precludes the safety measures that were in place.

What I would call engineering failure due to inadequate planning.

Now, absolutely all the data isn't in. Perhaps the reports of the worst case analysis are incorrect or misleading. Perhaps the forms that they filed really did have accurate risk evaluations, perhaps they were using best practices in their plant, and perhaps an extremely unlikely and unforeseeable issue led to the disaster.

But I'd first say that even a cursory glance at the most destructive engineering failures of the last fifty years or so would indicate that the odds are very much against this interpretation. I'm actually hard-pressed to come up with even one serious large-scale disaster that did not involve both engineering failure and gross human error.

The one fact we seem to be sure of, that they weren't inspected for five years, certainly indicates a massive fuckup on the inspecting agency's part. There is absolutely no way you can convince me that that's the right thing to have done. Safety isn't done on five year periods - it isn't even done on one year periods - it's done moment to moment. How lax can your company get when "nothing goes wrong" and there is no one external to look at your system for five years at a time?

You know, I'm absolutely not a fan of the meat packing industry - but they have safety inspectors embedded in the line! The inspectors are empowered to "stop the line" - which means all work stops - while a condition is remedied and they do it all the time. And after that, they have a completely separate layer of testing that the packing plant does itself - because the organizations that they supply to do their own testing and have severe penalties built into the contracts for contamination.

That's continuous inspection - an adversary built into the system. And that's what you should need for a fertilizer plant - which even stupid people must know by 2013 is basically a massive bomb. Perhaps it isn't necessary to have someone actually in the production line - but are there really so many plants and so few inspectors that they can't have someone come in a day every month?

I'd also say something else - that this is not like a criminal case where the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. In terms of "responsibility", engineers, ship captains and other professionals in safety-oriented fields have a much higher standard than "You can't prove I didn't fuck up." As the engineer, it is your responsibility to build a plant that is safe under even extremely unlikely circumstances, and if there is a disaster, it is by default your responsibility, even if "you didn't know" it could happen - it is up to you to prove that it is not your fault.

The cost of serious engineering failure is so great that this is the only reasonable way to work. If you cannot handle that level of responsibility, seek another field.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:07 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


See also: The Gimli Glider:
As they communicated their intentions to controllers in Winnipeg and tried to restart the left engine, the cockpit warning system sounded again with the "all engines out" sound, a long "bong" that no one in the cockpit could recall having heard before and that was not covered in flight simulator training. Flying with all engines out was something that was ever expected to occur and had therefore never been covered in training.
...
They immediately searched their emergency checklist for the section on flying the aircraft with both engines out, only to find that no such section existed.
That's what happens when you assume two unrelated failures will never happen. 30 years on and you'd have thought we'd have learnt to plan for the unexpected.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:15 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


What I would call engineering failure due to inadequate planning.

*sigh*. So any and all engineering failure is due to inadequate planning and thus would fall under your two categories? Really? I don't think you really mean what you're putting out here.

I'm actually hard-pressed to come up with even one serious large-scale disaster that did not involve both engineering failure and gross human error.

Read the book I linked and get back to me, once you throw the human element into things, which is kinda what separates engineering from just plain old higher math in a lot of ways, things tend to get a lot less cut and dry. Note, I didn't say people weren't responsible, but to draw a hard and fast line stating that it's either stupidity or criminal behavior is just not in line with the way things work. Take the Tacoma Narrows bridge failure it.. ya'know, I'm not going to delve in because I'm really thinking that you're taking the line of "Well they should have thought of that shouldn't they?" kinda precludes any evidence to the contrary.

The cost of serious engineering failure is so great that this is the only reasonable way to work. If you cannot handle that level of responsibility, seek another field.

Is this like some form of "Get the to a nunnery!" or something? I mean engineers are human beings and while they should stand responsible for their actions that doesn't mean they're omnipotent, cool as that would be. Nice to know that every ship wreck or automotive death or whatever was directly attributable to a negligent person somewhere up/down the line. I guess that's one way to look at things, but I don't personally ascribe to it.

That's what happens when you assume two unrelated failures will never happen. 30 years on and you'd have thought we'd have learnt to plan for the unexpected.

It's a fair point but you have to think that there are a lot of successful flights in a given day where things have been planned for and problems are solved without a hitch. Those don't just magically happen. You simply cannot plan for everything. Doubly so where capitalism and costs are a constant concern. But I digress...
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:22 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


For those of you familiar with hardcore polkameisters Brave Combo (big boosters of West):

RT @rphilpot @jfloyd_dmn: Just spoke with @BraveCombo lead Carl Finch - band headlines Westfest every year. Says benefit being discussed.
posted by emjaybee at 1:36 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Take the Tacoma Narrows bridge failure

That's an excellent example I was going to bring up.

First, it involved a hitherto unknown phenomenon - wind resonance. Well, it's 2013. There really aren't very many of those unknown corners any more - because we've already run into most of them.

But second, and far more important, the bridge effectively exceeded its design parameters by a great deal - enough that the failure mode was detected long before the bridge actually collapsed, so no one was hurt except a dog (and he would have survived if he'd cooperated with rescuers).

Take a look at the movies of the bridge - who would have believed that the surface would have been able to survive such torsion intact? The engineers didn't know and couldn't have modelled the winds, but obviously, they massively overengineered the bridge in other ways, and loss of life was avoided.

It worked out. No one died. It was expensive, but engineers learned a very good lesson at a comparatively cheap cost.

When I'm talking about "huge" engineering failures, I means ones involving huge losses of life.

Here's a list of the largest industrial disasters. I just picked one I didn't know out at random, the Piper Alpha - and what do we see? Human error - a comedy of lost documents. Systematic error - the fact that a memo falling off someone's desk can cause an explosion is like something out of the movie Brazil. Single-point-of-failure error: once the control room became unusable, they lost any possibility of remedying the issue. There's more - a whole litany of failure.

Here's another - two identical hoses with identical fittings were accidentally switched, leading to an explosion. I'd call that literally "an accident waiting to happen".

And I don't have to look up Bhopal.

Again, this isn't a court of law. We must hold engineers to a much higher than "Can't prove guilt."

We know for a fact that the system failed, because the plant exploded. There's some slight chance it was some inevitable act of God but even if that were the case, well, the system they built, failed. It is a permanent black mark against them under all circumstances.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:57 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, it's 2013. There really aren't very many of those unknown corners any more - because we've already run into most of them.

So we know everything there is to know. Gotcha. I didn't know we were operating under those premises. Omniscient engineers and omnipotent managers/workers/inspectors, got it.

And yes, this is a fertilizer plant in 2013 and not a bridge in the wee-dark ages of the 1940s but, again, I'm not the one working in absolutes here by stating this was caused by x or y, no other explanation need apply.

The engineers didn't know and couldn't have modelled the winds,

See, but completely excusing the people involved with the bridge and not giving an inch of slack to the people involved in this situation at this explosion doesn't jive with where we've already been in this discussion. It was my main point, which you are contesting, to be exact:

RolandOfEld: Third, an unexpected and unplanned for situation arose that precludes the safety measures that were in place.

lupus_yonderboy: What I would call engineering failure due to inadequate planning.


You can't have it both ways. That bridge absolutely could have killed people and to handwash it away because

It worked out. No one died. It was expensive, but engineers learned a very good lesson at a comparatively cheap cost.

doesn't make sense in light of the previous mantle of responsibility you sagely placed on the people involved.

I feel like this is getting a bit into the back and forth land of personal derail so I'll take any discussion to memail if you'd like to continue so as not to take over the discussion here.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:13 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Again, this isn't a court of law. We must hold engineers to a much higher than "Can't prove guilt."

I don't see where anyone is saying that.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:24 PM on April 18, 2013


Be careful of deciding the trend based on this single incident. Generally workplace safety has made strong and consistent progress since the 1970s. According to OSHA:
Since 1970, workplace fatalities have been reduced by more than 65 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled.
posted by humanfont at 2:29 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


> So we know everything there is to know. Gotcha. I didn't know we were operating under those premises. Omniscient engineers and omnipotent managers/workers/inspectors, got it.

You're claiming there's a whole class of industrial accidents that aren't caused by gross error - where are they?

I've presented you a list of the great industrial disasters of all time. I've invited you to point out which of these in the last 50 years or so were not caused by gross failure at multiple levels - so which are there?

Or, conversely, can you find some examples from the last 30 years or so of major industrial accidents which were caused by some effect that could not have easily been predicted from theory and previous experience?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:14 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Father and daughter from video are OK.
posted by dirigibleman at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


You're claiming there's a whole class of industrial accidents that aren't caused by gross error - where are they?

I gave an example of one, which oddly enough you also stated was not due to 'gross error' but instead by the fact that the "engineers didn't know". Or at least you didn't think the people around it should be treated as offenders of such a thing. So I guess we've truly achieved discussion stagnation and have to agree to disagree.

I've presented you a list of the great industrial disasters of all time. I've invited you to point out which of these in the last 50 years or so were not caused by gross failure at multiple levels - so which are there?

The fact is you gave examples of human factors that influenced systems in ways they were not intended to be used. Like it or not that's a prime example of a use case that the people behind the design and construction of the thing at hand expressly didn't intend the thing at hand to be used for. Sure, that's something someone somewhere could have tried to design around but there's no such thing as foolproof. Nor is there a real failsafe device. If you perpetually make the perfect the enemy of the good then you'll never get a design out the door. We'd still be sitting in the dark while the greatest minds in the world tried to make everything (electricity, computer OSes, sanitation systems, sock knitting machines, everything) absolutely safe in every way for both the producers and the users.

I've invited you to point out which of these in the last 50 years or so were not caused by gross failure at multiple levels - so which are there?

See the top of this comment I suppose.

Or, conversely, can you find some examples from the last 30 years or so of major industrial accidents which were caused by some effect that could not have easily been predicted from theory and previous experience?

Why do you keep placing odd timeframe arguments on this discussion unless you really think we've perfected the system or gained ultimate knowledge in the last X or Y years? I can't seem to understand why you think the last 50 years of design is fundamentally different than the previous phases of human development. Sure we have computer modeling but that modeling is only as good as the programmers and assumptions behind it. Things are better but they are far from perfect.

That said, how about the DeHavilland Comet? Without going into details, see the wiki for that, it was a really obscure construction/design issue that hadn't been experienced, at least as catastrophically destructive, in airliners before. Read up on what it took to figure out what went wrong and how obscure it is. Can you explain it away in hindsight, sure you can, but that doesn't make it right.

You're asking for proof that hindsight isn't 20/20, which sadly is exactly the way design improvements work. Things improve by identifying the flaw that caused the problem (up to and including disaster level issues) and correlating that with the data and experimentation to find a solution. Anything you find of course looks like it should be obvious! But that's because you're looking at it from the viewpoint of the present looking at the past. Going all Captain Hindsight doesn't help anything.

And maybe this specific situation should and could have been prevented, I am not at all precluding that possibility at all! But, and this horse is about beat to death, to lump all failures into either gross stupidity or criminal negligence, both of which should and must call for drastic levels of punishment, is to damn the world to no advancement for fear of stepping outside what we already know. Because the human race doesn't learn from success, it learns from failure. *insert cliche about failing up here and all that jazz*
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:14 PM on April 18, 2013


My mom is with her quilting friends this week, one of whom grew up in West. She (the friend) just learned that she lost two brothers-in-law -- both volunteer firefighters. Very sad.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:15 PM on April 18, 2013


that she lost two brothers-in-law -- both volunteer firefighters.

I was waiting for this part of the story to drop. It's going to be so awful for the families that get hit with multiple casualties/injuries. Based upon growing up with small-town volunteer firefighter brigades familial connections in the unit are not at all unusual.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:29 PM on April 18, 2013


lupus_yonderboy: "And that's what you should need for a fertilizer plant - which even stupid people must know by 2013 is basically a massive bomb."

I totally agree that OSHA and the company owner/managers and the like should know about the danger of fertilizer, but cut us stupid people some slack. I'm a stupid person, and I did not know that. I thought that fertilizer was used to make bombs, but was not in itself particularly dangerous, in the same way that bat poop can be used as one of the ingredients in gunpowder, but bat poop is not, in itself, basically gunpowder. And I'm sure there are a lot of other people as stupid as myself.
posted by Bugbread at 4:50 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


but was not in itself particularly dangerous, in the same way that bat poop can be used as one of the ingredients in gunpowder, but bat poop is not, in itself, basically gunpowder.

Bat guano isn't gunpowder but it is highly combustible. Just like fertilizer.
posted by Justinian at 5:15 PM on April 18, 2013


The death estimates are up to 35-40, including 10 first responders.
posted by donajo at 5:27 PM on April 18, 2013


Ok, well, there's another point in my stupid column then. So, like I said, go ahead and berate the industry folks — they should know this stuff. But lay off us stupid folks.
posted by Bugbread at 5:29 PM on April 18, 2013


It wasn't me! I just like bat poop.
posted by Justinian at 5:38 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


CNN is reporting casualties might be as high as 35.
posted by emjaybee at 5:51 PM on April 18, 2013


Do we know what originally happened yet? Before the explosion, I mean.
posted by Justinian at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2013


A fire.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:57 PM on April 18, 2013


DigDoug: "Dear This Week,

fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou

Signed, America
"

Dear America,

No. Fuck YOU.

This Week.

Sorry if inappropriate but I needed to make a little funny to cope with this week's assholery.
posted by Samizdata at 6:08 PM on April 18, 2013


And then there is this guy, a witness to both the marathon bombing and the West explosion.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:17 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


emjaybee: "I think I'd be more outraged that they wouldn't consider moving the damn plant instead of a lot of people out of their homes. Surely that would be easier. "

This apparently was only a storage facility, I'm not sure what kind of specialized plant is required. But a lot of production facilities end up surrounded by residential neighbourhoods and moving those plants is basically impossible. The costs involved are huge. The real solution is zoning limits that prevent people moving into danger zones but that is very difficult to retro-impose.
posted by Mitheral at 6:57 PM on April 18, 2013


But of course, obOnion- Jesus, This Week
WASHINGTON—Calling the last four days of American life just...I mean, talk about a goddamned punch in the gut, citizens across the nation confirmed today that, Jesus, this week.

This fucking week, sources added.
posted by hap_hazard at 7:10 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


A fire.

Well, yes.
posted by Justinian at 8:07 PM on April 18, 2013


Take the Tacoma Narrows bridge failure

My 11-year-old and I have been watching this Great Courses series of lectures on structures. It's awesome.

The professor teaching the course says that one factor in the Tacoma Narrows collapse was the engineers' unfounded assumption that the mass of a span that long would be enough to resist wind load without stiffening trusses. They turned out to be wrong. The Golden Gate Bridge and the George Washington Bridge were both built without stiffening trusses as well; by the time of the Tacoma Narrows collapse, the Golden Gate had already experienced vibration due to wind. Both the Golden Gate and GW bridges were retrofitted with stiffening trusses after the Tacoma Narrows.

(Notice how I can throw around high-falutin' engineering terms like "wind load" and "stiffening truss"? Couldn't have done it two weeks ago. Say what you will about homeschooling for kids, it's highly educational for moms.)

We have studied a lot of collapses and failures in these lectures. New technologies seem to often fail through some combination of "unforeseen" and "engineers didn't realize." Today we watched a lecture that included the Hartford Civic Center collapse of 1978, which the prof attributed to a new system of roof trusses, based on a 3-dimensional framework of inverted pyramids rather than a more traditional system of repeating 2-dimensional structures (obviously not literally two dimensional--but I think you know what I mean if you picture the roof trusses in a normal house construction). Lacking tools to analyze this new roof design, engineers didn't realize it was susceptible to buckling at the perimeters, which is what happened under a snow load.

That book linked above about "the role of failure in successful design" will be of interest to us.

That is my contribution to the engineering side-argument going on here.

It is a small world. I have a friend from Texas who believes a house she used to live in was destroyed by the explosion today. I will be holding all of these people in the Light in the coming days.
posted by not that girl at 8:37 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Rachel Maddow has a worthwhile segment about West, with some background on the Texas City explosion and some pretty damning descriptions of the plant itself.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:57 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Late to this discussion, but thoughts are with Texas and the friends and families of everyone effected by this disaster.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:21 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd like to thanks lupus-yonderboy and rolandofeld for their interesting discussion. Its an interesting argument, and I still have a foot in each corner after many years trying to understand the psychology of the oversights that lead to such flaws.
posted by bigZLiLk at 9:22 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unless someone other has mentioned this already...

http://www.nfpa.org/Assets/files/AboutTheCodes/30/30_FAQs.pdf

I've been involved in process plant design for over 30 years and I realize that these sort of things are inevitable. All we can do is to try to design the best we can.

The CSB will perform a study, it may take years to find out what really happened.

This latest "event" in Texas saddens me.
posted by PixelPiper at 9:59 PM on April 18, 2013


You can't have it both ways. That bridge absolutely could have killed people and to handwash it away because
Well, it was absolutely an error to allow people to get on the bridge once the waving had been noticed. If no one was allowed on the bridge, no one would have died. This wasn't something that happened one day totally out of the blue, the reason that we have footage of it is because cameras had been set up specifically to film the smaller waves that actually brought people to ride on the bridge for fun.

People had a different relationship with risk back then.

Also it's 'handwave' not 'handwash'.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 PM on April 18, 2013


Also it's 'handwave' not 'handwash'.

What you do in the restroom is none of my concern... But seriously, thanks, I'd always though it was a reference to Pilate's action concerning Jesus's trial but I see where you're coming from.

posted by RolandOfEld at 12:07 AM on April 19, 2013


Responsibility for public accidents, especially with industrial technology, accrues in layers. One of those layers isn't widely acknowledged as such, which I think helps explain the way these discussions get polarized into blaming the engineers/corporations/regulators/universe.

Surrounding an industrial technology are the engineers, corporations, and regulatory agencies that have direct and explicit control over its functioning. But between that sphere and the wider sphere of the universe containing some eventualities we can all agree nobody could be reasonably expected to foresee, lies what could be considered the meta-implementation level. This is the mechanism by which the public chooses or defaults to implement the technology at the scene of the accident. Or chooses not to implement it, though our culture hasn't often considered that an option.

In between accidents, the public tends to treat the sphere of direct implementation as a black box full of experts in the engineering/corporate/regulatory disciplines. Within that box, if it is not dysfunctional, then when something goes wrong with the technology or a risk factor is discovered, a formal troubleshooting process takes place with results that are good for at least one of the disciplines as well as good for the public.

When something goes wrong, we open the black box to discover that the disciplines within are similarly opaque. Regulators have been captured; engineers are incompetent or disenfranchised; corporations are crooked; and nobody can seem to figure out how to fix those things. We need to do better troubleshooting than this. When the box malfunctions, the onus is on us as a society to fix it or take it offline.

I think a good case can be made that many of our industrial technologies have gotten away from us. I just finished reading a 2012 book by Gar Smith called Nuclear Roulette. If even half this book is grounded in fact, the nuclear industry is in a very bad way. The NRC, having successfully asserted itself via federal pre-emption as the sole arbiter of radiological safety, has decomposed to an appalling state. Smith's book isn't recent enough to have documented two recent whistleblowers from within the NRC, and Jaczko was still a commissioner at press time. But the book effectively exposes a crucial difficulty with our collective approach to managing (or not) those activities which pose serious public risks.

Bringing this back to West, Texas, it seems to me if we did an adequate job of managing the meta-implementation, much of the speculation driving the foregoing discussion could have been avoided. There should be a public data resource so any citizen could look up what was contained in this fertilizer facility, how it was stored, how it was secured, and the decision-making trail leading up to the current configuration. That such a resource would be an asset to emergency responders is obvious enough, but the larger point is that its very presence would indicate a healthier state of affairs than currently exists.

This is a warning. We are entering an extended period of economic contraction and never mind what CNBC says. Those vulnerabilities that remain in our industrial systems will become more acute with the further constraints in funding, political coherence, security, and civic involvement we can expect to go along with that economic contraction. We had best get our ducks in a row and there isn't a moment to lose.
posted by maniabug at 6:37 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


First confirmed death reports are coming in. 12 per DPS, 15 per mayor of West. It sounds like mostly first responders and fertilizer company employees so far. The names haven't been officially released but family members are starting to name them.
posted by Dojie at 7:07 AM on April 19, 2013


I feel awful for the victims, and that this story has scrolled entirely off of some news sites. People will be calling for more surveillance in the coming weeks but I fear no one will be calling for closer regulation of industrial plants. Something as simple as a working sprinkler system could have saved all these people.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I feel awful for the victims, and that this story has scrolled entirely off of some news sites. People will be calling for more surveillance in the coming weeks but I fear no one will be calling for closer regulation of industrial plants.

I think in Texas at least, it's not going to scroll off nearly so fast.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:22 AM on April 19, 2013


Actually, while it's still on the Dallas NBC affiliate's site, it's been pushed down quite a bit by both Boston coverage and a gas well leak in Denton (oh please, no more explosions!)
posted by Dojie at 11:30 AM on April 19, 2013


Some inspirational words from Coach Taylor, via Texas Monthly.
posted by donajo at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2013


> I gave an example of one, which oddly enough you also stated was not due to 'gross error' but instead by the fact that the "engineers didn't know".

As I explained above, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge "Disaster" was not a disaster because no one was killed or injured. No one lost their house, their business, or was evacuated. Yes, a bridge fell into the water and cost some people some money - not a disaster. I personally think that the field of engineering needed to learn about wind and resonance, that some such disaster was going to happen sooner or later, and this was the best (as in least) possible disaster to happen.

As I also explained above and you seemed to ignore, Tacoma Narrows show the strength of good engineering practices. Although there was a serious issue involving a hitherto unknown phenomenon, the fact that the bridge itself withstood deformations far beyond spec means that no one was hurt and they were able to deal with the problem in an orderly fashion.

Also, Tacoma Narrows was not an industrial accident.

> That said, how about the DeHavilland Comet?

This is also not an industrial accident. Also, see my comments about "mature technology" below.

> Why do you keep placing odd timeframe arguments on this discussion

I randomly picked 50 years only because I have little personal knowledge of industrial disasters before that, and because everything really was different before WWII.

Can you tell us about no-fault industrial accidents before 50 years ago, though? I'd be interested to hear about them.

> unless you really think we've perfected the system or gained ultimate knowledge in the last X or Y years?

Of course we haven't "perfected" anything or gained "ultimate" knowledge in anything. But you are, I believe willfully, ignoring the idea of "mature technology".

We have been making fertilizer for (almost exactly) a century now. Humanity has a great deal of experience in this area - many generations of engineers. We have a great deal of experience in failure modes. To the best of my knowledge, we haven't had a disaster in a fertilizer plant from an unknown failure mode in at least two generations...!

And again, the burden of proof is on you. Where are all these massive failures in modern times due to previously unknown failure modes?

Let's put it another way. If you hear about an explosion at a gas station, your first thought will not be, "This might be some new unknown property of gasoline that caused this to happen." You'd logically assume that it was most likely human error (quite likely not the fault of the gas station, perhaps a truck drove into them), or, much less likely, an "act of God" (something that is no one's fault).

And best engineering practice for fertilizer plants has them "hardened" against acts of God. For example, a gas station should be able to take a lightning strike, but if it set off the tanks you'd say it was an unfortunate accident - but if a fertilizer plant takes a lightning strike and goes off then it was massive engineering failure - a factory is inevitably a target for lightning, you should expect lightning strikes "all the time" (every year at least).

In the current case, we have a plant which claimed that the worst case accident would be "the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes." (Link to the actual filing.) We're pretty sure that they haven't seen an inspector in five years. And we know that fertilizer plants are mature technology - that competent engineers managers should be able to construct and manage a plant in such a way that it never, ever blows up barring ridiculously improbably coincidences. (Again, if you have some counterexample, then lay it on me.)

So I'd say that it's "almost certain" (not yet "beyond reasonable doubt" but almost certain) that plant management is to blame - even given the very limited information we have. And I'm absolutely willing to criticize the plant's engineering management based on "almost certain" - their system failed, it failed catastrophically, it was their responsibility.

Oh, and on rereading your post, I think you're believing that when I blame the engineers, I'm blaming specifically the engineers who originally designed the plant. Of course, I have no idea who designed the plant, and they might have done a perfectly good job and left a decade ago. The fault is clearly with the current engineering management and their practices. I'll bet we find that the plant was originally perfectly well built and that "best practice" simply deteriorated over years of complacency and cutting corners.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Texas Tribune reports on environmental and regulatory questions raised by the explosion in West.
posted by immlass at 3:57 PM on April 19, 2013


Also it's 'handwave' not 'handwash'.
What you do in the restroom is none of my concern... But seriously, thanks, I'd always though it was a reference to Pilate's action concerning Jesus's trial but I see where you're coming from.


(aside) I had never considered that. Cool thought.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:11 PM on April 19, 2013


I don't know whether to feel sorry or relieved that the media pressure is not on the people of West, TX.

(also, many volunteer firefighters I knew would refuse to be paid. Being volunteer is what it's all about. They also go under considerable amounts of training and have regular training and work sessions, so they're hardly less qualified than a paid volunteer.)
posted by Wuggie Norple at 5:32 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do know one thing.....Governor Goodhair is probably extremely pissed that it isn't and that he's missing his moment in the spotlight.
posted by 8-bit floozy at 9:05 AM on April 20, 2013


Texas Fertilizer Plant Failed To Disclose Massive Amount Of Ammonium Nitrate
posted by unSane at 9:07 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Reuters report linked in that article is profoundly unsettling, especially the section toward the end "Hodgepodge of Regulation." It's not very surprising though. I recall seeing a report a year or so after September 11 on, I think, Bill Moyers' Now about infrastructure security. They interviewed a guy who said, yes, our infrastructure is at risk of terrorist attack but that he felt it much more likely that accidents would be responsible for life loss and property damage given the regulation problems at all levels local to federal.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:59 AM on April 20, 2013


Someone was commenting on reddit's r/conspiracy the other day - usually a hotbed of misinformation and weirdos but this guy was pretty convincing (though I can't seem to find the post any more).

He was saying that he worked for an unspecified national regulatory agency and pretty well everyone there knows that there are hundreds if not thousands of plants flying below the radar - but there simply isn't a fraction of the money needed to do a halfway decent job of inspection, and more, in most cases the feds don't really have jurisdiction, but the states' regulatory agencies have even less money to do their jobs.

His claim was that such accidents are going to be more and more common as time goes on. He also claimed that even if people wised up and started funding the safety agencies overnight, this wouldn't fix anything for a long time, because it would take the better part of a decade to catch up on the backlog.

I personally blame a lot of the issue on the concept of limited liability, and the warped idea that capitalists can never be held criminal responsible for "honest mistakes" made in the pursuit of profit - even if those "honest mistakes" kill a lot of people. Basically, you could do much as you like, safe in the knowledge that no matter what happens, the very worst that will happen is that you will lose the specific investment that went wrong - but they won't be able to get any of your other money, and you won't see a day in jail.

But destroying the regulatory agencies, both at a national level but even more on a state-by-state basis - that's really appalling. The only thing worse than that is that many Americans think it's a damn good idea, and even explosions like this aren't going to convince them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:40 AM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why did West, Texas, build homes and a school next to a 'time bomb'? - "The town of West, Texas, and the West Fertilizer Company grew and prospered together. But profit motives, a sense of civic trust and Catch-22 zoning laws failed to recognize the danger brought to light when the plant exploded this week with the force of a small nuclear bomb."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:20 AM on April 20, 2013


Texas Fertilizer Plant Failed To Disclose Massive Amount Of Ammonium Nitrate

So, amusingly enough, the reason that a plant making anhydrous ammonia fertilizer blew up, when anhydrous ammonia fertilizer doesn't blow up, is that in fact they were stockpiling ammonium nitrate, which sure as hell does blow up.

And they had 270 *tons* of AN lying around. You're require to notify, and take action, where there is more than 400 pounds. They had half a million pounds of it lying around.

Yes. Half a million pounds of unreported blasting agent just lying around.

Fuckers.
posted by eriko at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


You're only required to notify DHS when you store ammonium nitrate because the government is worried about people buying some and turning it into bombs. From the article:
the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.
So if they had notified DHS, the result would have probably just been an entry in a computer somewhere. At best they would have been audited to make sure that, e.g., nobody could buy suspicious quantities of the stuff or sneak in and steal it. West Feritlizer did notify the EPA, whose job it was to make sure local services were aware of the dangers:
A separate EPA program, known as Tier II, requires reporting of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals stored above certain quantities. Tier II reports are submitted to local fire departments and emergency planning and response groups to help them plan for and respond to chemical disasters. In Texas, the reports are collected by the Department of State Health Services. Over the last seven years, according to reports West Fertilizer filed, 2012 was the only time the company stored ammonium nitrate at the facility.

It reported having 270 tons on site.

posted by Joe in Australia at 11:51 PM on April 20, 2013


Photos From the West, Texas, Factory Explosion

Distressing because of the horrifying destruction, but there are no images of human remains.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:43 AM on April 21, 2013


West Feritlizer did notify the EPA, whose job it was to make sure local services were aware of the dangers

The report raises questions about that disclosure two paragraphs later:
In response to a request from Reuters, Haywood, who has been a safety engineer for 17 years, reviewed West Fertilizer's Tier II sheets from the last six years. He said he found several items that should have triggered the attention of local emergency planning authorities - most notably the sudden appearance of a large amount of ammonium nitrate in 2012.
If the plant suddenly began storing a large amount of ammonium nitrate last year, I think it's worth asking whether they were adequately prepared to handle the material safely. I'd be interested to hear about the other items that raised concerns for the Reuters expert from the six years worth of filings.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:15 AM on April 21, 2013


Why would a plant like that all of a sudden start storing 500,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate after not having any for years?
posted by empath at 6:49 AM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ted Cruz, Bill Flores Asked For Federal Aid After Texas Explosion, But Voted Against Sandy Relief
posted by tonycpsu at 7:27 AM on April 21, 2013


Houston Chronicle report on environmental regulations issues. The bit at the end with the guy who owns a similar facility in Corsicana is particularly scary.

(Also, Ted Cruz is a flaming hypocrite, film at 11.)
posted by immlass at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2013


West Fertilizer Violated Federal Anti-Terror Regulations
The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate – which can also be used in bomb making – unaware of any danger there.

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2013


In Focus covers West.
posted by immlass at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2013


Will the "Koch Brothers Bill" Make Industrial Accidents More Likely? Such accidents are all too common in chemical country. So why are congressmen fighting to keep the EPA from doing anything about it?
posted by homunculus at 12:49 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A family member of mine is still in the hospital from the explosion with serious burns among other things. If laws were broken someone needs to be tried for criminal negligence and manslaughter.
posted by Malice at 2:35 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder when the lockdown will be over and they can bring these perpetrators to justice...oops, wrong thread.

I hope I don't have to keep pasting this same comment in more threads :-(
posted by j_curiouser at 12:46 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths
Meanwhile, building on yesterday’s discussion of media coverage of these events, only 2 of 63 cable news segments on the West Fertilizer explosion noted that the plant was in violation of federal standards for holding ammonium nitrate. Bad reporting on workplace conditions helps people see these events as accidents and not as the fault of specific choices corporate leaders make and for which they should be held criminally and civilly responsible.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:58 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Famed EPA Whistleblower Hits Media Coverage of 'Criminal' Texas Plant Explosion
posted by homunculus at 5:30 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


What makes West, West
posted by Dojie at 6:53 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's heartwarming - and fascinating in that tech-makes-the-world-small way - that West is the #1 news item in the Czech Republic (according to Dojie's link.) And that the Czech ambassador is spending time there trying to figure out a way to channel all that usefully.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:08 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


homunculus's most recent link alleges that the NYT and Reuters have published some pretty overt falsehoods in their coverage of this story, BTW.
posted by XMLicious at 7:21 PM on April 24, 2013


Explosion in mobile alabama.

That's 2-1 in favor of capitalist incompetence over incompetent terrorists on the explosion count.
posted by empath at 10:23 PM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, that's maybe a just a little iffy to post this week without elaboration.

So: two barges collided. Three people were injured.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:08 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Couple of West-related news items:

Texas Fertilizer Plant Fell Through Regulatory Cracks (NYT).

Czech Republic approves $200,000 in aid for West.
posted by immlass at 9:20 AM on April 25, 2013


"The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten"
This decline in coverage has created an environment in which companies may feel as if they can get away with massive safety violations because they will face little scrutiny from the media and the public....

As Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, who has covered the Upper Big Branch mine explosion more than any other reporter, tweeted, “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention — so we give that to them.”
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:39 AM on April 25, 2013


More on the regulatory failures: What Went Wrong in West, Texas — and Where Were the Regulators?

Fertilizer plants that hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, for instance, are required to notify the Department of Homeland Security. (Ammonium nitrate can be used to make bombs. It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) The West plant held 270 tons — yes, tons — of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the plant didn’t tell Homeland Security.

(bold is mine)
posted by Big_B at 1:24 PM on April 25, 2013


The Other Explosions
posted by homunculus at 2:08 PM on April 25, 2013


People are boggling a 270 tons of ammonium nitrate but at say 100lb/acre/year for corn that's only ~5000 acres or 8 sections of land. Average corn farm size is 441 acres so 5000 acres is about enough ammonium nitrate for 12 farms annually.

(I'm using corn because it was the first crop I could get lb/acre information for; I don't know what they grow around West Texas.)

400 lbs is a ridiculously low reporting threshold; homeland security must be swamped to reports. I mean that's only 8 50lb bags; practically every garden supply place, golf course, municipality, farm, etc. is going to have that much on hand if they use it.
posted by Mitheral at 6:06 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's more evasion involved than just the ammonium nitrate reporting requirements; according to this link the paperwork the plant filed with the EPA claimed that they didn't even handle any flammable materials at all, much less explosive ones, and hence not only did they avoid the expense of the safety measures for handling explosives they may have also got out of even having the necessary fire safety equipment. And any costs involved with the town needing a professional fire department trained and equipped to handle a fire in a facility storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, of course.
posted by XMLicious at 6:27 PM on April 25, 2013


I mean that's only 8 50lb bags; practically every garden supply place, golf course, municipality, farm, etc. is going to have that much on hand if they use it.

What are you talking about? This isn't a finished fertilizer product, it's a raw chemical.
posted by odinsdream at 7:07 PM on April 25, 2013


The West, Texas, explosion shows the deadly effect of profit before safety: Poor regulation of the West Fertilizer plant likely contributed to 15 deaths – just as 13 US workers die at their jobs every single day
posted by homunculus at 7:16 PM on April 25, 2013


400 lbs is a ridiculously low reporting threshold

It depends on your perspective. 400lbs is enough to make a devastating bomb.

On the other hand, someone upthread mentioned that AN is an ingredient rather than a fertilizer -- well, not really. AN is used as a fertilizer on its own, sometimes combined with an ingredient that makes it harder to use as an explosive. Even when it's not used on its own, all that happens is that it's mixed with some other stuff.
posted by unSane at 8:07 PM on April 25, 2013


Oh I can see where homeland security came up with the limit but it seems that they'd end up with too much chaff to make any sense of potential terrorist.

odinsdream: "What are you talking about? This isn't a finished fertilizer product, it's a raw chemical."

unSane touched on this already but I want to reiterate that AN is a fine fertilizer all on it's own. IIRC homeowners can't buy unadulterated AN in the states anymore but we can still buy it in retail quantities in Canada and I've got a bag (well half a bag) in my shed right now. A 40lb bag of AN if you aren't trying to make a bomb out of it is safer than a 40lb quantity (4 gallons) of gasoline. It basically just sits there.
posted by Mitheral at 9:10 PM on April 25, 2013


People are boggling a 270 tons of ammonium nitrate but...

I'm boggling less at the quantity of ammonium nitrate than at the plant's reporting failures and the suspicions that West Fertilizer was handling hazardous materials without adequate safety precautions in place.
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:56 AM on April 26, 2013


West, Texas explosion editorial cartoon strikes a nerve with Rick Perry
posted by homunculus at 5:56 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bohemia Mountain: In trying to research current standards/tech/specs in industry safety standards for fertilizer/ammonia/anhydrous ammonia plants I've come up nearly completely blank. I don't know if OSHA or states of the feds require things like berms that ceribus peribus mentioned up thread.

I've spent some time researching this, because although I knew about the safety berms at the Ontario locations through personal connections with bigwigs in industrial safety and emergency response, I didn't want to give everyone the wrong impression that this was A Generally Adopted Thing if it wasn't. So for anyone still interested, I've discovered "safety barricading" and "explosive safety" are good terms for finding further info on this sort of thing, and yes this is indeed a widely adopted, regulated, and expected practice if everyone is playing by the rules. Some examples:

i) A Guide to the Safe Storage of Explosive Materials (PDF), from the North Carolina Dept of Labor, specifically classes ammonium nitrate as a Blasting Agent on page 1:
Classes of Explosive Materials
Explosive materials may be divided into three classes:
High explosives are explosive materials that, when unconfined, can be caused to detonate by means of a blasting cap. An example is dynamite.
Low explosives are explosive materials that, when confined, can be caused to deflagrate. Black powder, safety fuses, igniters, igniter cords and fuse lighters are examples.
Blasting agents are substances classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 49 CFR 173.50 as blasting agents. These are substances that have a mass explosion hazard but are so insensitive that there is very little probability of initiation or of transition from burning to detonation under normal conditions of transport. Ammonium nitrate, fuel oil and particular water gels are examples.
It then proceeds to describe the type of safe storage environments (termed magazines) that are mandated for each class of explosive material, minimum separation distances, how those minimum distances are effected by the presence or absence of artificial barricades (which may be made of earthen barriers), and so on. Look at some of the notes from "Table 6 [Distances of Ammonium Nitrate and Blasting Agents From Explosives or Blasting Agents]" (page 22):
...
2. When the ammonium nitrate and/or blasting agent is not barricaded, the distances shown in the table shall be multiplied by six. These distances allow for the possibility of high velocity metal fragments from mixers, hoppers, truck bodies, sheet metal structures, metal containers and the like that may enclose the “donor.” Where storage is in bullet-resistant magazines recommended for explosives or where the storage is protected by a bullet-resistant wall, distances and barricade thicknesses in excess of those prescribed in the American Table of Distances are not required.

3. The distances in the table apply to ammonium nitrate that passes the insensitivity test prescribed in the definition of ammonium nitrate fertilizer promulgated by the Fertilizer Institute; and ammonium nitrate failing to pass said test shall be stored at separation distances determined by competent persons and approved by the authority having jurisdiction.

...
5. Earth, or sand dikes, or enclosures filled with the prescribed minimum thickness of earth or sand are acceptable artificial barricades. Natural barricades, such as hills or timber of sufficient density that the surrounding exposures which require protection cannot be seen from the “donor” when the trees are bare of leaves, are also acceptable.

6. For determining the distances to be maintained from inhabited buildings, passenger railways and public highways, use the Table of Distances for Storage of Explosives in table 6-4b of NFPA 495-1985,
Code for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage, and Use of Explosive Materials.
ii) In this document describing regulations and safe practices (PDF) for surface mining blaster safety, prepared by the US Dept of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining in Denver, Colorado, there is a section with a good description of Barricading along with some diagrams (page 25,26):
"Barricading” is defined as the effective screening of a magazine containing explosive materials from another magazine, a building, a railway, or a highway, by either a natural barricade or an artificial barricade.

A barricade, such as a berm made from natural soil, must be constructed wide enough at height so that a straight line drawn from the top of any sidewall of the magazine it is screening to the eave line of any other magazine or building will pass horizontally through a portion of the barricade that is at least 3 feet thick.
iii) A public safety officer directly commented on the elevated rail berm providing some protection from the West explosion in this Reuters article:
RAILROAD TRACK BERM

Trooper D.L. Wilson of the Texas Department of Public Safety said he is convinced that a railroad track embankment along the side of the plant facing the residential area saved lives.

The railroad track is located on top of an eight-foot- (2.4-metre-) tall berm that Wilson said deflected most of the force of the blast up into the air rather than toward the residential area.

"I have been down in that area and the blast went up," he said. "If that blast hadn't have gone up over the railroad track, it would have leveled more houses."
So in summary, yes, explosive deflection berms do seem to be widely adopted and mandated.

Now, the examples I've found are from different states, and different industries than fertilizer storage, and I haven't tracked down which agencies and regulations would have directly applied to the West incident, but I'm certain that if the presence of ammonium nitrate had been properly disclosed? reported then the site would have become subject to explosive storage regulations that were written specifically to prevent this kind of disaster. In other words, smart people have already anticipated this hazard, and regulations are already in effect to ensure much a better degree of public safety than West had. This was a failure of compliance and/or enforcement of those regulations.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:09 PM on April 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Rude Pundit: Fear the Chemical Plants, Not the "Terrorists"
posted by homunculus at 2:04 PM on April 30, 2013


Texas fertilizer plant targeted by thieves in past. It's believed they wanted anhydrous ammonia to make meth.
posted by immlass at 6:26 PM on May 3, 2013


The plant had one million dollars in liability insurance. [Latimes link open in incognito mode in chrome to avoid registering].
posted by rdr at 4:14 AM on May 6, 2013


ProPublica article [single-page format] outlines a few key issues:

Ed Sykora, who owns a Ford dealership in West and spent a dozen years on the school board and the city council, told the Huffington Post he couldn't recall the town discussing whether it was a good idea to build houses and the school so close to the plant, which has been there since 1962. "The land was available out there that way; they could get sewer and other stuff that way without building a bunch of new lines," Sykora said. "There never was any thought about it. Maybe that was wrong."

The report the plant filed with the EPA in 2011 stated that in a "worst-case scenario," there was no risk of fire or explosion.

Who regulates these fertilizer plants? Per the linked article:

"At least seven different state and federal agencies can regulate Texas fertilizer plants like the one in West: OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service.

The West plant held 270 tons — yes, tons — of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the plant didn’t tell Homeland Security.

Carrie Williams, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, told ProPublica that the agency isn’t required to pass that information — which is also sent to local authorities — on to Homeland Security."

Per the May 5 West, Texas town hall meeting: "The following causes related to the initial fire have been eliminated: weather, natural, anhydrous ammonium, the railcar containing ammonium nitrate, and a fire within the ammonium nitrate bin. Additionally, water used during fire fighting activities did not contribute to the cause of the explosion.

The investigation has revealed, to date, that the origin of the fire was in the fertilizer and seed building. The investigators continue to work on pinpointing an exact location of origin
.

To date: SFMO and ATF have developed 237 leads, from which 411 interviews have been conducted. On average 60-70 investigators are on site daily assisting with the investigation. Approximately 29 state and federal agencies have assisted on the scene. The ongoing investigation will last 1-2 weeks beyond May 10."
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:10 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Guardian: Texas launches criminal investigation into explosion at West fertiliser plant.

NYT: After Plant Explosion, Texas Remains Wary of Regulation.
posted by immlass at 1:07 PM on May 10, 2013


Paramedic on scene during West, Texas explosion arrested for possessing a pipe bomb. Unknown at this time if it is linked to the explosion.
posted by humanfont at 1:52 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Victims In Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion May Still Have To Pay Property Taxes
posted by homunculus at 7:54 PM on May 11, 2013


Bryce Reed, enigma of the Texas blast tragedy
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:45 AM on May 13, 2013


While it might be a nice gesture to defer or forgive those taxes it doesn't seem unfair to require the payment. All the owners took advantage of the hysteresis in the system when building to underpay taxes on improvements.
posted by Mitheral at 10:35 PM on May 13, 2013


Official investigation finds that the cause of the explosion is "undetermined."
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:05 AM on May 17, 2013


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