Gov. Rick Perry declares West area disaster zone

Joshua Fechter and Jordan Rudner

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.”