A massive explosion at a West, TX fertilizer plant has left almost 200 people injured and at least 5 to 15 people dead. Officials fear the number of fatalities will rise, as many people are unaccounted for, including several firefighters who were fighting a fire at the plant when the explosion occurred. The city’s EMS director, Dr. George Smith, confirmed the deaths of two EMS workers and said that three to five firefighters and a police officer were reported missing.
The blast occurred at 7:50 p.m. and registered as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey. One city councilor reported that the four block area around the explosion's epicenter was “totally decimated.” Fifty to 75 houses were destroyed, an apartment complex with about 50 units, that was reduced to "a skeleton," a middle school and a nursing home. Many witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The materials made at the plant were similar to the materials used to fuel the bomb that blew up the Murrah Federal Building.
Firefighters had been called to the West Fertilizer Company plant earlier to put out a small fire. The explosion occurred as they were fighting the fire. Officials are still investigating to determine if the chemicals at the plant, including ammonium nitrate, caused the explosions.
Ammonium nitrate is a commonly manufactured fertilizer, with nitrogen making up about one-third of this chemical compound. It’s very popular as a plant fertilizer because of its solubility in soil, allowing the nitrate to move deep into the root zone under wet conditions. Ammonium nitrate is sensitive to heat and pressure which can lead to an explosion.
Another concern to authorities is the potential of exposure to anhydrous ammonia, a toxic gas that is also used as a fertilizer. West Fertilizer Co. reported it has 54,000 pounds of the chemical at the plant.
Anhydrous ammonia gas is dangerous. Upon inhalation, throat passages and lungs swell, leading to hoarseness, hardening of the respiratory tract, and in sufficient concentrations – suffocation and death. Contact with eyes can cause visual impairment. Ingestion can result in liver malfunction and coma. Although anhydrous ammonia is classified as a non-flammable gas, it can ignite with explosive force when mixed with air in the right concentration.
This explosion comes almost 66 years to the day of another massive explosion that occurred in Texas City. On April 16, 1947, the French vessel SS Grandcamp, docked at the Texas City port when a fire broke out, detonating 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. The explosions killed almost 600 people and left thousands injured.
Emergency Film Group’s Inorganic Oxidizers DVD is one of the DVDs of the HazChem Series. This informative DVD provides training to emergency response personnel who may be called upon to respond to a leak, spill or a fire involving ammonium nitrate, calcium hypochlorite or nitric acid. Another program in the series, Anhydrous Ammonia, discusses response issues for this dangerous gas. To learn more, read here. . .