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Lesson from West, TX Explosion to Be Discussed

When emergency responders and firefighters arrived at the West Fertilizer Co. in April 2013, they came prepared to put out a fire at the facility. While battling the fire, a huge explosion rocked the facility, killing 11 firefighters.

Those deaths, and many more injuries, could have been prevented had the emergency personnel understood better the nature of the material that was on fire. Fertilizer - ammonium nitrate – is highly combustible, especially in the presence of an ignition source.

They needed to have been better prepared, equipped, and informed about the hazardous material present at the facility, according to Manuel “Manny” Ehrlich, board member for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent federal agency that investigates chemical fires, incidents, and explosions across the U.S.

“The emergency responders were not prepared to deal with the hazards and risks of this material,” said Ehrlich. “The people that responded to the incident did the very best job they could with the information they had and that information gap has to be what is filled.”

Ehrlich will speak about “Lessons Learned from West, Texas Chemical Fire & Explosion” as the keynote morning presentation at the second day of the Powder & Bulk Solids Texas Conference, October 14. Ehrlich will address the conference regarding the explosion and discuss what the CSB found in its investigation and what responders should do in such a situation so incidents like this can be prevented.

Find out more about the CSB investigation and conclusions about the West, TX fire and explosion at Powder Show Texas Oct. 13-14, 2015 at the NRG Center in Houston.

The April 2013 West, TX explosion killed 15 and injured more than 150 people, when about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the West Fertilizer Co. The plant facility was destroyed and the blast from the explosion could be felt in surrounding communities for miles.

A common theme that Ehrlich has found in his years of investigating chemical fires and explosions is that the emergency responders within the community are unaware of the material that is on fire and are ill equipped to fight the fire.

Ehrlich says that across the country, a very small percentage of emergency responders have the high-level of training to handle situations such as the West, TX incident. A lack of funding and resources presents challenges for providing that training.

“People just don’t have all the information they need at the time to keep themselves out of trouble,” said Ehrlich.

Companies and communities should communicate with each other so that emergency responders know what is on site as far as hazardous chemicals or materials, as well as ensuring that they have the training to respond to such incidents.

Ammonium nitrate – the material at the root of the West, TX explosion – is a material that Ehrlich says responders need to be careful around.  “People don’t understand that oxidizers are a nasty thing to deal with,” said Ehrlich.

Joe Florkowski is the managing editor for Powder & Bulk Solids. He can be reached at [email protected]

For related articles, news, and equipment reviews, visit our Explosion Protection & Safety Equipment Zone.

Click here for a list of Explosion Protection & Safety Equipment Manufacturers.

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