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12 Dead In Texas Fertilizer Plant Blast, Authorities Say


There's so much we do not yet know about the chase for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. We do know that one suspect was killed by police overnight in the Boston area. One is believed to still be at large. We're going to continue covering that story.

But we're also trying to get a little more deeply into another story we've been following in this unbelievable week of news. A small Texas town was devastated this week when a fertilizer plant caught fire and then exploded.

NPR's John Burnett has been covering that story. John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's been hard to get answers about your story here. In fact, it's been hard up to now to even know how many people were killed or wounded in that gigantic explosion. What's the latest that you have?

BURNETT: Well, we finally have a firm figure on fatalities. We just learned it from a state trooper a short while ago at a press conference. Twelve bodies have been found in the destruction surrounding that explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, which is about what they expected. The State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas says on its website this morning that 11 of those 12 were first responders who were killed in the line of duty.


BURNETT: That would be almost a third of the West Volunteer Fire Department. There are four - 30 volunteers there. The dead include five firefighters, one Dallas firefighter who volunteered at West, four EMS responders, and one was unknown. And really, these were the first responders who saved so many lives because as the fire was burning and they realized that a catastrophic explosion was possible at this big fertilizer plant, they started evacuating the apartments nearby. They started moving these nursing home residents to the other side of the building, which doubtlessly saved many lives.

INSKEEP: Yeah. This is just devastating, John Burnett, particularly for a town of fewer than 3,000 people. You talk about 12 fatalities, most of them being first responders. Probably most of the people in town knew at least one, if not all of the people who were killed.

BURNETT: Everybody knows the volunteer firemen. They have fundraisers, I mean they all work in the community. They have different jobs, you know; they all pitch in and so, it's a close-knit town to begin with so this is really, people in town talk about how this will change West, this event. You know, a five-block area has been obliterated, surrounding the plant. Having said that, it's important to know that downtown West came through this pretty well. There's been some very apocalyptic reporting from this little town. And actually, the downtown area, aside from some doors blown in and some windows blown out, it looks pretty good this morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for giving us that clarification. John Burnett, has the site of the explosion cooled down enough that investigators have been able to get a good look and begin to understand why this fire started in the first place?

BURNETT: They've got some - a lot of very good forensic fire people here, both from Austin and from Washington. They haven't yet announced the cause of the blaze. They're actually still keeping it officially open as a crime scene, that it could be a possible arson, but there's been no talk of anything other than an accidental industrial fire. They've gone through about 150 buildings looking for bodies and for survivors and they've got about 25 to go. That's what they'll do today.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett. He's been reporting from West, Texas, the town of West, where a fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded earlier this week. And what we've just learned from John in the last few minutes, is that we now have a close-to-official death tol1, 12 bodies have been recovered, 11 of them described as first responders who initially went to the scene of that fire.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.