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County emergency workers ready to help

Profile image for By John D. Harden / Staff Writer
By John D. Harden / Staff Writer

Denton County emergency personnel were ready to respond to the massive plant explosion in West on Wednesday night, relaying to state officials that the county was on standby and available if needed.

The emergency was considered a Type III incident — one requiring many resources and support from multiple local, state and federal agencies to handle the situation.

The county’s emergency services remained on standby for about three hours before Texas Department of Public Safety officials told county authorities that no other services were needed at the moment.

DPS spokesman D.L. Wilson said many emergency crews from surrounding counties, including Johnson, Dallas and Tarrant, responded to the explosion and the blaze that followed.

West is located in McLennan County a few miles north of Waco and about 100 miles south of Denton. As of Thursday afternoon, county officials were not called to assist with cleanup and rescue efforts in the city.

Wilson said the emergency crews in West have the situation under control, but did not rule out the possibility of other agencies being asked for help.

According to a DPS report, the explosion happened at about 7:50 p.m. at a fertilizer plant within walking distance of a middle school.

The explosion registered a magnitude of 2.1 on the Richter scale and was felt 40 to 60 miles away, according to the U.S. Geological Survey website.

Wilson called the explosion an unbelievable tragedy and everything around the plant “looked just like Iraq and the Murrah building in Oklahoma City,” which was bombed in 1995.

Multiple buildings caught fire, including the school, Wilson said. But no official number on the deaths has been confirmed, he said.

The National Response Team of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called Wednesday to join the investigation into the cause of the plant fire and explosion.

Officials from DPS’ emergency management division said in a news release that Texas is fortunate to have “highly trained first responders who are second to none.”

Like most small towns, West is a tight-knit community where neighbors look after each other and join together in times of need. Local firefighters — most of whom work on a volunteer basis — medical personnel, town officials and countless others came together Wednesday night under the most difficult of circumstances, said Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management at DPS.

David McEntire, a professor in the University of North Texas’ emergency administration and planning program, said that in an event like this, a small city such as West can become completely overwhelmed.

“They would have to send out a plea for help fairly quickly, and that’s what they did,” he said. “The combination of the plea for help and people’s compassion resulted in a massive response.”

Typically in situations such as this, there is much to be done, McEntire said.

Firefighters are called to extinguish the blaze and evacuate areas, and a city could call for mutual aid under an agreement, he said, and police assist in directing traffic.

McEntire said that at the time of the explosion, medical personnel play a vital role in treating the injured.

As time passes, he said, the search for survivors becomes a priority, followed by damage assessment, debris management, public relations and the coordination of volunteer and donation efforts.

Other agencies that may become involved in emergency efforts include utility agencies, which step in to shut off gas to homes; Texas Task Force 1, which assists with search and rescue; and the ATF and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which generally come in to investigate and determine the cause of the explosion.

“[There’s] definitely lots going on,” McEntire said. “Definitely a complex response unfolding before our eyes.”

Many Denton County businesses and groups also are working to offer humanitarian aid. Several blood drives and food drives are planned for the next several days.

Some groups were already working Thursday, with plans to drive canned goods and toiletries to West today.

BRITNEY TABOR contributed to this report.JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.