Hannah Hutyra

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

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When marketing senior Hannah Hutyra got a call from her mom, who said there had been an explosion, Hutyra said she didn’t understand why her mom sounded upset.

“Nothing ever happens in a tiny town like West,” Hutyra said. “It’s not like it’s a big city.”

Hutyra, who grew up in West, a town about 20 miles north of Waco, drove back Thursday to be with family and friends after a fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday night. 

“I’m in shock, still, I think,” Hutyra said. “I know it’s going to hit when I get home. The things I’ve been hearing — it sounds like a war zone.”

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area and said he will seek a federal emergency declaration from President Barack Obama after a fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday night.

“It’s been a tragic, difficult 16 hours for all of us, all of our friends and all of our loved ones,” Perry said at a press conference Thursday. “Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community.”

The current death toll is around five to 15, and some reports are narrowing the toll to eight to 10. Hutyra said her uncle and his brother, Doug and Robert Snokhous, are among the
volunteer firefighters still missing.

“The men in our town volunteer in their free time,” Hutyra said. “That’s what you do in a small community. And you just feel safe.”

The blast occurred at around 8 p.m. Wednesday, injuring over 100 people and damaging at least 75 homes, a school and a nursing home. Teams are still going through the remains of the plant in search of survivors.

At the press conference, Perry and other state officials spoke to the scope of the incident. Perry said President Obama called him from Air Force One en route to Boston and promised a quick turnaround on declaring a federal emergency.

Perry said multiple state agencies are responding to the situation in West: the Texas Department of Public Safety is supplying law enforcement personnel, Texas Task Forces 1 and 2 are conducting search and rescue operations, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is conducting air quality tests and the Texas Department of Transportation is directing traffic.

Officials addressed concerns about the cause of the explosion and the history of West Fertilizer Co., which operated the plant.

Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said West Fertilizer Co. had not been inspected since 2006, when a complaint was filed about an “ammonia odor” emanating from the plant. Covar said generally plants are only inspected when a complaint is filed.

Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management at the Texas Department of Safety, said the department still needs to conduct an investigation to determine the cause of the explosion.

“It’s really too soon to speculate on what the cause of this was and what products were involved,” Kidd said.

Kidd addressed concerns that firefighters used water to put out the fire when ammonium nitrate was present, possibly creating a reaction.

“I’ll tell you, a lot of firefighters will use their No. 1 tool, which is water, in a hazardous materials, chemical situation like that to cool the surrounding environments, to cool those other things to keep them from cooking off or exploding,” Kidd said. “I don’t think we should be second-guessing right now the actions of the first responders and whether they were applying water at the appropriate place at the appropriate time.”

Perry said he was not prepared to say what the economic impact on the community would be and did not know how significant of a presence the plant had as an employer in the town.

“West is a really small community and just a few thousand people … They know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family,” Perry said. “It’s touched practically everyone in that town.”

Megan Leinfelder, an advertising junior from Waco, waited for more than an hour and a half in order to donate blood to support the West community. The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas sent more than 220 units of blood to the Carter Blood Care satellite site in Waco, and had already replenished their stores through donations by Thursday afternoon.  

“If you live in Waco, it’s not uncommon at all to know people from West, or have friends with family in West,” Leinfelder said. “I knew I would want to help as soon as I heard.”