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West, Texas: The fertilizer plant explosion that killed 10 firefighters

Detailing the tragedy from the initial response to the final investigation

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Firefighters walk next to a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, early Thursday morning, April 18, 2013.

AP Photo/LM Otero

The City of West is a small rural town in central Texas, approximately 20 miles north of Waco and 75 miles south of Dallas.

On the evening of April 17, 2013, the weather in central Texas was typical for spring, with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees F, low humidity, scattered clouds, and winds blowing from the SSE at 20 mph.

Everything changed around 19:30, when a devastating explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant rocked the city. The blast was so powerful that it was felt 80 miles away and registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. The explosion destroyed or damaged more than 500 buildings, including homes, schools and a nursing home; left a massive crater where the plant once stood; and hit the community with an economic loss of over $230 million.

West fatalities and injuries

The explosion killed 15 and injured more than 280 people. Except for one, all fatalities occurred due to fractures, blunt force trauma, or blast force injuries sustained during the explosion.

Among those killed were 10 firefighters ranging in age from 26 to 52:

  • Five West volunteer firefighters;
  • Four volunteer firefighters attending an EMS class in the city (two from Abbott VFD, one from Bruceville-Eddy VFD, and one from Mertens/Navarro Mills VFD); and
  • One off-duty Dallas fire captain who became aware of the incident and responded to the scene to assist.

Five additional West firefighters were injured in the explosion.

One of the three community members who sustained severe injuries and subsequently passed away was a nursing home resident. The other two casualties were living in an apartment complex nearby. 

Support following tragedy

In the aftermath of the explosion, the West Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) was left reeling from losing so many of its members. The department struggled to cope with the tragedy as it was left with a severely depleted roster of firefighters. Many of the remaining volunteers had lost friends and colleagues in the blast and were traumatized by the experience.

Despite these challenges, the volunteers of the WVFD showed incredible resilience and dedication to their community. They continued to provide fire protection and emergency services, working tirelessly to keep their community safe after the disaster. They were supported by neighboring fire departments and other emergency responders who came to help in any way they could.

The WVFD received an outpouring of support from the wider community as well, plus donations from across the country to help the department rebuild and replace the equipment lost in the explosion. Thanks to the public’s generosity, the department purchased new fire trucks, turnout gear and other essential equipment after the incident. 


A home spray painted with a heart and an inspirational message, damaged by the fertilizer plant explosion along Reagan Street is shown Friday, May 31, 2013, in West, Texas.

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

West, Texas, history

The City of West can trace its roots to the establishment of a local post office in 1852. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the area remained sparsely populated until 1881, when the construction of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (aka the MKT or “Katy” Railroad) through West became a catalyst for the town’s early growth.

The city was officially incorporated in June 1892.

By 1900, West had a fire department, a weekly newspaper, a bank, a cotton mill, several cotton gins, a hotel, a school system and several churches – and a population estimated by some as high as 2,000.

As a result, West became an important shipping point for agricultural products such as cotton, wheat and corn, and the town’s economy boomed. The railroad also brought new settlers and businesses to the area, including many Czech immigrants. The new businesses included establishing West’s general store, hotel and bank by the town’s namesake, Thomas West. Its heritage is celebrated yearly with the Westfest Czech heritage festival that attracts approximately 50,000 people every Labor Day weekend. 

West Volunteer Fire Department

The West Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) has a long history of serving the community. Established in 1894 as the West Hose Company #1, the department provided fire protection and emergency services to the town of West and surrounding areas for over a century.

The fire station is located in the city center. The department covers a population of approximately 2,700 across 54 square miles, with 1,500 residents living within the city limits.

The department had 31 active members rostered at the time of the 2013 explosion.


First responders stand on an Interstate 35 overpass to honor two firefighters being transferred from a hospital in Waco, Texas to Hillsboro, Texas Saturday, April 20, 2013, three days after they were injured in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

West Fertilizer Company

Before 2013, The West Fertilizer Company plant was essential to the local economy. Many people in the town and nearby communities worked at the plant. The plant produced and sold fertilizer and other agricultural products to farmers in the surrounding area, helping to support the local agricultural industry. 

Built in 1961, the plant was surrounded by open fields outside the city limits. It began operations in 1962, producing a variety of fertilizers and other agricultural products.

In subsequent years, the town slowly grew outward toward the facility. The plant was located on the north end of the city, and its storage of large quantities of chemicals, specifically anhydrous ammonia and fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN), was a source of concern for some residents. The plant did not experience any significant incidents before the 2013 explosion. 

Despite the potential hazards, zoning restrictions did not limit residential or commercial occupancies from encroaching on the facility. As a result, a park was located within 150 feet, an apartment complex at 370 feet, West Intermediate School just over 200 feet, and the local high school about 500 feet from the plant.

The number and quantity of chemicals stored at any given time are directly correlated to the season and demands of local farmers. The plant operated out of two buildings and multiple vessels on the site. One building served as the chemical warehouse, shop and office. The other building stored bulk fertilizers, including ammonium nitrate. The bulk storage building was a non-sprinklered, wood-framed building, approximately 12,00 square feet in size, with no fire-resistance rating for its structural members. The only utilities to the building were electrical services.

The FGAN was stored in a granular form in two bins, constructed of combustible materials, within the building. Approximately, 40- 60 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored between two bins, and the main bin involved in the initial explosion contained an estimated 30 tons. In addition, the facility kept approximately 24,000 pounds of liquid anhydrous ammonia throughout various vessels on site. 

Initial response

Shortly before 19:30 on the evening of April 17, dispatch received a 911 call about smoke emanating from the West Fertilizer Company plant. At 19:34, the WVFD was dispatched to the scene. Just after 19:35, a City of West police officer reported on the scene with heavy smoke and fire beginning to breach a storage building. Understanding the hazards at the facility, the WPD officer transitioned to evacuating the nearby areas, starting with the playground.

The initial WVFD response to the incident involved four apparatus:

  1. Engine 1, equipped with a 750-gallon water tank, responded with two firefighters (2 LODDs)
  2. Engine 2, with a 1,000-gallon water tank, responded with a captain driving and one firefighter (injured)
  3. A single brush truck with a 750-gallon water tank and a powered hose reel with 100 feet of 1-inch booster hose also responded with one firefighter (LODD)
  4. A WVFD tender with a 2,000-gallon water tank was driven to the scene by the fire chief (injured)

Two firefighters (LODDs) responded as part of the initial response in their personally owned vehicles (POV).

The initial mutual-aid response included a volunteer fire department aerial ladder truck that was slightly damaged by the blast as it approached the scene from the north.

Four volunteer firefighters (4 LODDs) from surrounding agencies also arrived on the scene in their POV, while one firefighter (LODD) rode in a city ambulance from an EMT class with two city EMS personnel.

The first WVFD unit arrived on the scene at approximately 19:39, confirming a working structure fire. The initial fire attack included deploying 1½-inch attack lines to extinguish the visible fire. Other firefighters were focused on establishing a water supply with a 4-inch supply line, attempting to connect to a nearby fire hydrant more than a quarter mile away. 

At approximately 19:45, the character of the fire changed. Around 19:51, about 12 minutes after the first WVFD unit arrived or 22 minutes after the initial 911 call, a massive explosion occurred. A 911 call was received by dispatch shortly after the explosion, confirming the explosion and reporting multiple firefighters down.

Investigations begin

In the aftermath of the explosion, many questions were raised about the safety of the West Fertilizer Company plant and the handling of hazardous materials in the United States, specifically ammonium nitrate (AN). The incident highlighted the need for stronger regulations and oversight to ensure the safety of workers and the public in handling dangerous chemicals and materials. 

The Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) initiated the investigation and invited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to jointly investigate the origin and cause of the fire and explosion, and to determine if the fire was intentionally set. Both agencies maintained control of the site for approximately four weeks, during which time their representatives conducted interviews, excavated the site and reconstructed the electrical system.

During this time, the following three scenarios were considered:

  1. Faulty electrical wiring
  2. A short circuit in an electric golf cart
  3. An intentional act of arson

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) also responded to the incident and performed a parallel investigation into the factors that contributed to the detonation of the FGAN. The CSB is an independent, nonregulatory federal agency that investigates the root causes of major chemical incidents and makes recommendations based on the agency’s findings. The recommendations are adopted at about an 80% rate.

The investigations ultimately revealed that a fire started in the seed room and quickly spread to the plant’s FGAN storage, where it caused the substance to detonate. It is assumed that during fire attack, the embers and other combustion byproducts were falling onto the bins storing the fertilizer chemicals.

The cause of the fire that led to the explosion was never officially determined, but one investigation agency believes it to be the result of a criminal act. In 2016, the ATF announced that it had concluded their investigation and found the fire was deliberately set. However, no arrests have been made in connection with the incident.

View a CSB video documenting the blast damage:

Lessons learned from tragedy

The West fertilizer facility had been storing a significant quantity of ammonium nitrate (AN), which needed to be properly stored or handled in accordance with federal safety regulations. In addition, the facility had not been inspected by regulatory agencies for several years, there wasn’t an available pre-incident plan, and no effective emergency response plans were in place. 

Under normal conditions, fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) is stable but can violently detonate when exposed to combustion byproducts. Understanding its chemical characteristics is crucial when determining an appropriate response to AN incidents. Generally, AN is considered safe since it is non-flammable and does not detonate unless exposed to fuel oil. However, according to an Australian government report, if AN is confined and exposed to fire, it can create hot pools that make it extremely sensitive to shock from other combustible materials, oil, metals or chemicals. Additionally, AN is a potent oxidizing agent, which means it can provide oxygen to a fire’s fuel, even in the absence of air, posing a risk of ignition for combustible materials, such as oil and paper.

The incident prompted a safety engineer and an occupational safety and health specialist from the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program to travel to Texas on April 22, 2013. The investigators met with representatives from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) and the ATF. They were seamlessly assimilated into the incident management system as line-of-duty death (LODD) task force members. The NIOSH investigators examined various materials related to the incident, including the mutual-aid fire department’s standard operating procedures, training records, incident reports, 911 dispatch recordings, photographs and available videos.

NIOSH Report (F2013-11), released on Nov. 12, 2014, provided a detailed analysis of the incident and identified several factors that contributed to the explosion, including inadequate hazard awareness and emergency planning, insufficient regulatory oversight, and poor communication between management and workers.

The report also made several recommendations to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. These included improving hazard communication and training, developing more rigorous safety standards and regulations, and enhancing emergency response and preparedness. The report also emphasized the importance of engaging workers and local communities in developing and implementing safety measures.

Several recommendations from the various investigations revealed some commonalities among emergency responders that should be highlighted:

  • To promote safe fireground strategies and tactics, especially for structures and occupancies with high hazard or risk, it is recommended that fire departments conduct pre-incident planning inspections of buildings within their jurisdiction.
  • For industrial facilities that store high-risk or high-hazard inventory, it is recommended that they adopt active fire prevention methods, such as mandatory automatic sprinkler systems, regular fire inspections, and other similar measures.
  • Adhering to the latest safe handling procedures for storing and handling ammonium nitrate fertilizer is highly advisable.

Two of the 19 recommendations from the CSB investigation remain open and are identified as critically important:

  1. The agency urges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to include ammonium nitrate on the list of chemicals requiring increased monitoring.
  2. The CSB recommends that OSHA make it mandatory for facilities with ammonium nitrate to have non-flammable storage bins and fire sprinkler systems.

Additionally, legislative action occurred shortly after the incident. The White House issued an executive order in August 2013 aimed at improving the safety and security of chemical facilities. However, the order was rescinded upon recommendations by the EPA in 2017, partly due to the investigative findings shared by the ATF. The possibility of restoring elements of the original executive order is currently being considered.

The importance of common-sense safety measures cannot be lost upon the challenges of managing the government. Balancing the obligation of commerce and public safety is attainable. It is realized through the collaboration of efforts toward a shared cause – understanding the “why” of what we are trying to accomplish and moving cooperatively toward improvement.

Final thoughts

The tragic loss of life in West serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing safety and taking proactive measures to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, this disaster and the many others involving AN will continue to provide opportunities to examine the impact of increased regulation and oversight of similar facilities and further highlight the importance of increased awareness, training and equipment needed for emergency responders. 

Additional references

U.S. EPA. “Chemical Advisory: Safe Storage, Handling, and Management of Solid Ammonium Nitrate Prills.” July 1, 2015.

Walsh, Domonic A. “New Details Emerge About The Federal Fallout Of The 2013 Explosion In City Of West, Texas.” Texas Standard, Feb. 11. 2021.

“Texas; Major Disaster and Related Determinations.” Federal Register, Aug. 19, 2013.

“The West, Texas, Ammonium Nitrate Explosion: A Failure of Regulation.” Sage Journals, Sept. 5, 2017.

“Will Firefighters Be Any Safer Under the New Hazardous Materials Code?” Fire Engineering, Dec. 3, 2015.

“Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion - The Latest News and Comment on the Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion.” The Guardian.

“Chemical Advisory: Safe Storage, Handling, and Management of Ammonium Nitrate.”, Aug. 12, 2013.

Joshua Davis is a member of Lexipol’s Fire Content Development Team. He serves as an assistant fire chief/fire marshal with the Leander (Texas) Fire Department. Davis has over 25 years of progressive experience in public safety by way of fire, EMS, law enforcement, government and emergency management, with more than 13 years of experience as a fire marshal and arson investigator. To connect with Davis, visit his LinkedIn.