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A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight.

L.M. Otero, AP

Texas on fire, again and again

  • Article by: BILL MINUTAGLIO
  • Special to the New York Times
  • April 20, 2013 - 9:55 AM

Shortly before a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, on Wednesday, a father was driving in the vicinity with his 12-year-old daughter. They had stopped to take a video of what the man thought was a large fire swirling around the local high school.

He chatted with his daughter as he aimed a camera at the flames, which he later estimated were 150 to 300 yards away. He seemed to have faith that no harm would come. Suddenly, there was a bone-shaking hell on earth as the plant erupted.

In the jangly video, which has gone viral online, you can hear the desperate, heart-wrenching plea from the child begging her father to flee the scene. In her panicked voice she yells to her father that she has lost her hearing.

The explosion in West, which killed at least 14 people, is now entering a dark pantheon of events in Texas, ones that will surely lead to debates in the state about government regulation and oversight — or the lack thereof. About what “public safety” really means, implies, entails. About Texas’ passionate history of pushing back at what some see as big-government intrusion — a trend that traces back to the regulation-free days of wildcatting in the oil patches.

As before, there will be demands that Texas be willing to scrutinize companies so tragedies like the one in West never occur again. But if history is any guide, lawmakers and officials will still err on the side of industry and less so on the side of public safety. And there will be another West in the years to come.

On April 16, 1947, in a Gulf Coast community called Texas City, a crowd of people had slowed to watch — and approach — pretty puffs of smoke in the town’s industrial area. Several 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer were on fire in a ship down on the waterfront. (Anhydrous ammonia, not ammonium nitrate, was the fertilizer in the West disaster.) Unsuspecting residents stared and waited for the firemen to perform their usual heroics. They had faith it would all turn out fine. Industrial fires periodically occurred and they were often easily, quickly, extinguished by the local fire department. But this one was different. Without warning, a mammoth explosion rocked the area for several miles, instantly killing scores of onlookers, including children.

Known as the Texas City Disaster, it was at the time the deadliest industrial disaster in the world’s most industrialized nation. It quickly consumed as many as 26 members of the fire department — as local lore goes, the one surviving member happened to be out of town.

In total, nearly 600 people died and about 5,000 were injured. People were coated by oil and gas. At least 63 of the dead were so horribly mutilated that they could never be identified.

Each of the 51,502 bags of fertilizer on the ship was marked in the same innocuous way: “FERTILIZER (Ammonium Nitrate).” There was also a marking indicating that the goods were “Made in U.S.A.” Nowhere on the bags were warning labels, no images of skulls and crossbones. The people who died in Texas City simply had faith that the city, state and federal officials would keep them from being harmed. They assumed their safety was being regulated. It was not.

But it wasn’t until six decades later, in 2011, that the United States Department of Homeland Security announced proposals to oversee the sale of ammonium nitrate and require anyone selling, buying or transporting 25 pounds of the fertilizer to officially register with the agency. This move came 16 years after Timothy J. McVeigh, a disgruntled Army veteran, used ammonium nitrate to take down a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Whether this would have been enough to prevent the Texas City Disaster is impossible to say. It would not have done what many of the people who survived the explosion said they wanted most: simply to have been warned by state and federal officials that dangerous chemicals, explosive fertilizers, were near their homes, schools and churches.

It’s a situation similar to West — where news is emerging that Texas officials were well aware that schools and homes were close to the big fertilizer tanks. Citizens of West of course knew about the plant, too — as one man told The Wall Street Journal:”It was always just there. You never thought about it.”

Sixty-six years after the Texas City Disaster, it is finally time for this pathological avoidance of oversight to end in Texas. To understand how deep the state’s regulatory resistance runs, one need only to listen to the state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, who often spearheads the Lone Star state’s rebuffs to federal imperatives. Earlier this year he was asked what his job entailed. “I go into the office in the morning,” he replied. “I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”

Long ago in Texas City, many of the residents were men and women with callused hands. They were patriots with enduring faith that America was, really, the safest place on earth. That the men in charge had put every safeguard in place.

Perhaps in West, there were some who still had unblinking faith in the muscled-up industrial soul of Texas, that it had been scrutinized to the right degree, and that the lawmakers in Austin had made sure of it. It is time for Texas to invite the deep scrutiny, the careful oversight, that those people deserve.

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Bill Minutaglio, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of “City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle.”

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