Much has been written and speculated about since the fire and explosion that rocked West on the night of April 17, 2013.
As Mayor of West and a first responder to the incident, I would like to finally put to rest many of the questions.
Let me say, first and foremost: the West Fire Department and West EMS emergency plan worked. The responders who responded to the fire that night were fully aware of what the definition of "West Fertilizer Plant" meant and were aware that hazardous chemicals were stored there.
Upon arrival, they quickly assessed the fire and, after a few short minutes, retreated to a safer, defensive firefighting position. Others in the department immediately began the process of moving citizens away from the area in anticipation of what might happen.
The West Police Department set up roadblocks and others began helping nursing home residents move to safer ground.
The sudden explosion at the plant quickly changed our department's response from fighting the fire to assessing casualties and triaging and removing the injured. Others in our department, including myself, attempted to suppress fires at the plant and at the Intermediate School; but to little avail, since water supplies had been compromised.
My role shifted from firefighter to mayor, and we set up a response structure to move injured away from the scene to the high school football field for transport to area hospitals.
Soon, Frank Patterson, Emergency Management Coordinator for Waco and McLennan County, arrived on scene and set up Incident Command at the intersection of Meadow and Marable Streets.
He began assessing and organizing the situation. Numerous first responders from area agencies began arriving--some requested, some not-but all were welcomed. Order began to be restored, search and rescue began, and the practice of the management of emergency response was set in place.
We set up command of fire suppression, search and rescue, evacuation, assessing and transporting injured, managing volunteers, and dealing with the supplies and equipment that would be needed immediately and in the coming days.
My point of this play-by-play description is to convey that the City of West and the McLennan County emergency planning and response system worked on April 17,2013. We evacuated half of our town, secured the affected area, searched for and rescued the injured, suppressed fires, and, in about two hours, transported more than 200 injured citizens to ready and waiting hospitals.
The state and national media can second guess and armchair quarterback all they want: the fact remains that the West Volunteer Fire Department, assisted by many other well-trained first responders, accomplished the task in front of us that night, and that was the protection of the citizens of West.
Make no mistake: "volunteer" does not mean "underprepared."
Since that horrible night, our city has worked hand in hand with Mr. Patterson, who has helped our city take the first, painful steps needed to return to our new normal. None of this could have been possible without his leadership and knowledge, along with the knowledge of veteran firefighters from the area, all of whom were trained, prepared, and ready to enter the ultimate fight on April 17. We thank them all.