Texas Agency Report Determines Firefighters Unprepared for Blast

The lead Texas agency investigating last year's deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant says the firefighters who were killed were not prepared for what they faced.

The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office released the findings Thursday of its investigation into last year's explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in the city of West. It killed 15 people, including 12 who had responded to the initial report of a fire at the plant.

The fire marshal's office said it found a "systemic deficiency in the training and preparation" of West's volunteer fire department, and that firefighters were battling a blaze that was too big to extinguish.

Officials said Texas should consider requiring training for volunteer firefighters and that agencies at all levels must prepare better for incidents like the explosion.

The men who died last year fighting a fire at a Texas fertilizer plant that then exploded have been called heroes, but they have also been called victims of a failed system.

Phil Calvin was one of the very first people to hear about the report. His son, Perry Calvin, was one of the firefighters killed in the blast at the West Fertilizer Plant.

"There's just a lot of things you just don't know what's gonna happen and I know as a volunteer fire department you do what you can," Phil Calvin said.

Officials from the State Fire Marshal's Office on Thursday met with residents of West to present the findings of their line-of-duty report examining the deaths of the 10 first-responders and two volunteers who were killed in the blast 13 months ago at the West Fertilizer Co. plant.

Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said Wednesday that he would discuss the report after meeting with the victims' families.

The report does not reveal something important that the fire marshal told the victims' families, Phil Calvin said. 

"And that's one thing that these guys told us tonight, the state fire marshals, the people that were here, that probably if anyone of them had pulled up on that scene they'd have done the same thing these 12 guys did," Phil Calvin said. "Was it the smart thing to do? Hindsight is 20/20. But was it the right thing to do? I think it probably was. I think it probably saved lives."

Many of the first responders' widows, children and friends still live in the town of 2,800, known as a close-knit community with a strong Czech heritage inherited from the immigrants who settled there a century ago.

Some of them attended a meeting last month held by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an oversight agency that conducted a separate investigation into the blast. The safety board said the firefighters didn't know enough about what they faced inside the plant: 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as a fertilizer, but also an industrial explosive.

Residents who spoke sought to defend the firefighters, most of whom were volunteers, and cited potentially conflicting guidance on how to respond to situations like the one at the plant. West Mayor Tommy Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, questioned whether investigators needed to focus more on the production of the ammonium nitrate, including ways to make it chemically safer.

NBC 5's Ben Russell contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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