Nolanville volunteer firefighter Capt. Justin Shelby had only one word to describe the ruins of the fire equipment he saw at the site of the West explosion: “scary.”
Shelby and three other members of Central Bell County Fire Rescue received a call for aid from West about 2½ hours after a large barrel of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at West Fertilizer Co., exploded, leveling buildings, blowing out windows and shredding buildings.
“You could see train tracks destroyed; train cars on their side, the barrels destroyed; fire equipment destroyed,” Shelby said. “It was very scary to see a fellow fire department’s vehicle destroyed and to know there were injuries to the firefighters.”
Central Bell County Fire Rescue was one of several local fire departments asked to help in the massive continuing effort in West. Also responding were the Killeen Fire Department, Harker Heights Fire Department, Temple Fire Department and Sparta Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now in charge of the recovery effort, said KFD Chief J.D. Gardner. Late Thursday, Gardner was the only remaining member of KFD at the scene of what he called “total devastation.”
“We’re in the middle of getting things back to normal,” said Gardner, who was with West Mayor Tommy Muska when reached on the phone. Muska’s home was one of scores heavily damaged by the explosion.
Throughout the night, Shelby scoured the now well-known areas of the small Texas town known throughout the state for its kolaches. He worked through the West Haven Nursing Home heavily damaged by the explosion, a four-block residential area southeast of the fertilizer plant and the 50-unit apartment complex across the railroad tracks from the plant in search of trapped survivors.
The apartment complex had 25 units destroyed, Shelby said. Entire walls were completely blown off the building with bed sets and tables visible from the outside.
The Harker Heights Fire Department continues to play a critical role in the recovery effort. Just minutes after the explosion, authorities requested the use of the department’s regional command and communications center.
The vehicle resembles a mobile home with communications equipment that allows the numerous responding agencies to communicate with each other. It also serves as a planning point for command.
The communications grid remains spotty in West, leading responders to continue to rely on the vehicle to coordinate efforts. Collier said that is the intended use of the command center. “We’re happy to support that monumental effort.”
Collier said it was an especially terrible incident because of the likely loss of the lives of volunteer firefighters.
“I’m just sad because I know this is really bad and my heart goes out to the volunteer firefighters up there in West that were rushing in to fight the fires when the explosion occurred,” he said.
“We are not untouched here because one of my firefighters lives up in West with his whole family, and his grandfather’s in the hospital and his cousin is missing, so we are affected, too.”
Shelby and three others from Central Bell Fire Rescue were aware that fellow volunteer firefighters were missing when they received the call to head to West.
“It kind of worried us that we had fellow firefighters trapped inside buildings,” he said. “One of the reasons we didn’t take heavier equipment to slow us down.”
Most local area emergency personnel had returned to their home jurisdiction by Thursday afternoon.
Killeen Fire Department sent its hazardous materials team to West. About 16 firefighters total, 10 members of the Killeen hazardous materials team, four to six members of the decomposition team and a single ambulance with two EMS personnel were provided to assist fellow first responders aiding in the recovery and decontamination effort Wednesday evening.
Harker Heights responded with nine members of the Harker Heights Fire Department and the Heights Police Department just minutes after the explosion occurred. One police officer and the fire department’s mobile command center remained in West overnight.
Fort Hood Emergency Services provided three fire department vehicles equipped with crews to aid with search-and-rescue efforts Wednesday night in West. Nearly all firefighters had returned by Thursday afternoon.
Central Bell Fire Rescue responded with four firefighters who aided in search and rescue overnight. They returned Thursday afternoon to Nolanville.
Sparta Valley Volunteer Fire Department had four firefighters in West overnight. They assisted with search and rescue and medical treatment.