West, TX Update: 14 Confirmed Dead, Including 11 First Responders

Just before 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday night, a fertilizer plant explosion rocked the 2,800 person town of West, TX, leaving approximately 200 injured, an unknown number dead and missing, and an entire section of the community completely decimated. In the last few days, officials have been hard at work recovering bodies from the scene of the explosion, with the death toll currently at 14. Reports are saying that at least 11 of the 14 were first emergency responders who rushed to the scene to help battle the flames, three of whom were in training to become an EMT. As one paper said, it was their "last call." Since then, 9 of the casualties of the explosion have been identified (click here to see the list on the Tribune's website).

Earlier reports from Friday said as many as 60 people were still missing following the accident; however, West Mayor Tommy Muska has since said that this list is misleading because a lot of people have simply been displaced. According to Muska, many of those people have been accounted for and that there is not currently an accurate list of people still missing.

Investigating into the Plant's "Red Flags"

With six separate state and federal agencies currently investigating the blast, more and more information is continuing to become available. Per Reuters, in 2012, the West Fertilizer Co. plant had been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate required to prompt U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) safety oversight. Since ammonium nitrate can be a prime ingredient in the making of bombs, anyone who is storing more than 400 pounds is required to report it to the DHS; however, the plant had been storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.

The DHS is among the principle regulators of ammonium nitrate, and while they have the authority to do random spot inspections of facilities throughout America, they do not have enough budget and manpower to visit every plant and refinery. Therefore, it is the company's responsibility to self-report whenever they have volatile chemicals on-site; by reporting, the DHS can step in and help to not only determine the risk of each individual facility, but can also help to come up with an effective safety plan. As the owner of one hazardous chemical consulting firm said, "I would hope they would have gotten outside help."

Being off the grid in regards to the DHS, however, is not the only safety concern that has come to light in the last few days. For example, according to the air permit chief of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, due to their handling of anhydrous ammonia, the facility had been required to have sprinklers and safety barriers in place. Yet, after filing a risk management plan with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, the company stated that they did not have these necessary safety systems, such as water-deluge systems, blast or fire walls, or sprinklers.

In that same 2011 report to the EPA, West Fertilizer Co. stated that the "worst-case scenario" would be a 10 minute leak of gas, which would have no ill effects in the surrounding community. Despite the volatile chemicals being stored on site, the report made no mention of the possibility of an explosion or a fire.

Please check back regularly as we will update with new information as it becomes available.

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