By Kat Worrall
When the West fertilizer plant suddenly exploded last April, the media and emergency response teams scrambled to respond.
Now, nearly one year after the explosion that left 15 dead and over 160 wounded, a panel discussion and luncheon Thursday will spotlight the lessons, triumphs and mistakes made with the communication following the disaster.
“West Revisited: One Year Later” will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. West Mayor Tommy Muska, Sgt. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department, Paul Gately from KWTX, Waco’s CBS television affiliate and Lori Fogleman, Baylor’s assistant vice president for media communications, will form the panel.
Fogleman, who will serve as the moderator, said she will also speak of the university’s immediate and long-term response to the tragedy.
“For the community of West, we grieved with them,” Fogleman said. “We prayed with them. We tried to provide as much support and manpower that we possibly could. To see them not forgetting what has occurred, but to continue to move forward and strengthen their community, we are very proud and humbled to be their neighbors.”
Swanton was one of the first responders to the emergency and served as the public information officer for the media. Swanton said he was “stingy” with the information first released, as he wanted to ensure any released information was verified.
“The goal was to number one, get out safety information to anybody that was possibly still there that could be affected by secondary explosions or blasts,” Swanton said. “Then we tried throughout the night to give information about specifics, such as what we knew happened, the time the fire department was initially dispatched, or the time of the explosion.”
Fogleman said she agreed gathering the correct facts and releasing it in a news conference to the media can be time consuming and difficult, especially with 24/7 coverage.
“The most important thing is to gather all the facts and get the facts from trusted sources,” she said.
“The way that this situation played out was late at night into the early hours. It appeared to me, because of the damage, to be a very chaotic situation and the most important thing at that time was to take care of the people in West and take care of those who were injured or remove people from a dangerous situation.”
As Swanton worked to avoid false or misleading information, he said he primarily focused on local media, rather than national coverage. While he received around 150 phone interview requests from news departments across the nation, he said his first priority was the local media.
“To me, it was more important to deal with our local media because I knew those folks were going to be here for the long haul,” Swanton said. “They were going to be here to help West rebuild.”
Event tickets are still available online at WestRevisited.eventbrite.com for $25 or at the door. Baylor PRSSA students will also be live tweeting the event at @PRSACenTex and posting videos of portions of the event to their Facebook page, Central Texas PRSA, after the event.
Though those in attendance can learn more about how the various responses of those at the front lines, Swanton said he believes the most important factor to the discussion is the fundraising for West.
“I don’t think we as a department or we as a community should say, ‘I’m sorry it happened to you,’ and them move on,” Swanton said. “Those people in West still need our support.”
Fogleman said she looks forward to hearing Muska’s account of the tragedy and learning more about how he has led the community since the devastating explosion.
“To see his leadership and strength to be able to rise up in the face of such devastation and to lead his city – I look forward to learning more about his role over the past year in helping his city to return to some sense of normalcy,” she said.
Swanton said he also hopes the discussion can help others, whether through emotional healing or helping others better respond to an emergency such as the West explosion.
“If anything that we did as a department or I did as an officer can help somebody be better down the road, then we will absolutely talk to them about it and tell them what worked for us and what didn’t work for us,” Swanton said. “Hopefully it can make all of us a little better at what we do.”