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Plant Explosion Unites Small Texas Community


And let's check in on another major story that dominated our attention last week, a fertilizer plant that caught fire and exploded in Texas. We can now say that 14 people were killed and 200 injured. But those numbers alone do not quite capture the impact of this disaster.


To understand that, recall that the disaster with that scale came in a city of fewer than 3,000 people.

NPR's John Burnett reports from West.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: As the Boston Marathon bombing created, among the stricken citizens of that city, far more solidarity than fear, the West fertilizer plant explosion has had the same effect in this quiet, close-knit farming community.

SANDRA KETTLER: Almost everybody became a little bit closer.

BURNETT: Sandra Kettler, secretary at the elementary school, says Mass yesterday morning at St. Mary's, Catholic Church of the Assumption was packed.


KETTLER: It was just like a Christmas Mass. Everybody's there. Everybody came home to protect their family, to see what they needed and helped them in any way.

BURNETT: On Sunday afternoon, West Elementary School was abuzz with activity as the staff frantically prepared for an influx of nearly 300 students whose schools were heavily damaged by the explosion. Mrs. Kettler, the high-strung school secretary, was in the vortex of the activity.

KETTLER: We're waiting for that last portable to be put together, and once it's put together and we're OK to go out there, we're going to see what this classroom needs.

BURNETT: A neighboring school district sent three portable buildings, complete with desks, to help accommodate the extra students. And there will be two counselors quietly present in every classroom this morning. At a press conference yesterday afternoon in front of city hall, the victims' families began to step forward before a phalanx of TV cameras. Eleven of the 14 dead are believed to be volunteer firefighters or EMS technicians.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Words cannot express how deeply saddened the Snokhous family is today. Doug and Robert were raised in West, and were proud members of the West Volunteer Fire Department.

BURNETT: West Mayor Tommy Muska, a volunteer firefighter himself, has appeared wan and shaken in the days since the blast flattened four to five blocks of his little city and sent a fearsome mushroom cloud into the sky. His mayor pro tem, Steve Vanek, has taken over media briefings.

STEVE VANEK: We have continued to make progress on opening up the access of part two. The directions are as follows: We're going to go from Oak Street south to Main Street.

BURNETT: Yesterday, he announced that residents will be able to briefly visit their homes in two of the three zones in the worst-hit area. An assistant state fire marshal described a large crater at the epicenter of the explosion. Some people lost everything. Others, like Larry Sparks, who describes himself as the town dentist, consider themselves lucky.

LARRY SPARKS: They allowed us back in yesterday. So it's just a matter of sweeping up the glass. And one of our front doors was demolished. It just blew in completely, and - but it's very minimal damage compared to what some of these other folks have suffered.

BURNETT: And what of the locally owned West Fertilizer Company that had existed here on the north side of town for 50 years, supplying farmers with the chemicals they need to produce wheat, corn and grain sorghum? Reuters News Agency reported the facility was storing 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer that should have been reported to the Department of Homeland Security, but was not. The Texas Department of State Health Services reportedly knew of the ammonium nitrate stockpile, but did not share the information with DHS. Another question citizens of West have begun to ask in the last five days: Why were the high school and the intermediate school built so close to the fertilizer plant if it was a safety hazard? Michelle Scott is principal of the elementary school. She lost her house in the explosion.

MICHELLE SCOTT: You know, I've had this conversation with a lot of people here in these past couple of days. The fertilizer plant was here long before - you know, we built around the fertilizer plant. You know, looking back at that, I'm thinking probably wasn't so smart. You know, no one ever dreamed it would be such a, something, you know, tragedy like this. I don't know - a lot of questions.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, West, Texas.


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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.