By Meredith Pratt | Staff Writer
On April 17, 2013, just 20 miles north of Waco, a fire at the West Fertilizer Company turned into an ammonium nitrate explosion. The facility burst at the seams approximately 20 minutes after the fire was first reported to emergency dispatchers.
West, a town of about 2,800 at the time, felt the impact of the explosion both physically and emotionally. Following the incident, the town received an outpouring of support from Waco and the surrounding communities, including Baylor University.
The explosion resulted in the death of 15 people, 12 of which were first responders. Over 160 people sustained injuries and more than 500 buildings were damaged or completely wrecked by the catastrophe. The McLennan County Judge at the time, Scott Felton, issued a declaration of disaster for the entire county.
Amber Adamson, a professor of journalism at Baylor, captured the stories of countless individuals who put their lives on the line in her book. The explosion happened during her first year of teaching at Baylor.
The book’s title comes from the tradition of firefighters ringing the “last alarm” at a bell-ringing ceremony in honor of the firefighters who die in the line of duty.
“The event happened, I think… two or three days after the Boston Marathon bombing. And so, immediately people thought ‘okay this is an act of terror,’” Adamson said. “Not only were all the local agencies involved, but ATF got involved, and so it became a crime scene — was shut down. The bodies couldn’t be removed right away, and so they sat for at least 36 hours.”
Adamson said both her husband and brother are career firemen, which gave her better access to that population.
“I started asking people if they would talk to me, and every person I would ask, I’d ask for two or three more people… and it kind of became this snowball effect where I would leave each interview with multiple names and phone numbers,” Adamson said.
Adamson said she recalls talking to a Waco firefighter from West that works with her husband and was at the wall of honor when they finally brought out the bodies.
“Some of the things he talked about were not really knowing who was being brought out each time,” Adamson said. “Knowing that he knew some of them and just the realness of that, and the fact that they were indeed dead and some of them were full body bags and some of them were just very small body bags because there was only parts of people left just really made it very real in his mind that he had lost from good friends.”
Because so much wreckage had been caused by the explosion, the West community was in dire need of help. Baylor decided to change Diadeloso, the day after the explosion, to DiadelWest and students donated supplies and gave blood to support the cause.
“I remember that Baylor students jumped in and were ready to help,” Adamson said. “I mean there were a lot of efforts to collect food supplies, bottles of water, clothing, things like that and take them down there. Baylor and the Waco community found ways to fill the needs, like the physical tangible needs, of the people in the community really quickly and that was cool to see.”
“Baylor students know about West because of the kolaches,” Adamson said. “It was cool for me to see that Baylor students got a sense of what the community was about beyond just the delicious treat they’re known for.”
Adamson said every year she plays audio from her interviews in her journalism classes.
“They need to be retold and retold and retold every semester,” Adamson said. “I think just to kind of, one, get students excited about what storytelling can be like and what interviewing can do, but to just to keep the stories alive because that means that they didn’t die for nothing. You know, it means that their sacrifices aren’t in vain. I think that’s — to me — that’s important and that was the whole heart behind the book.”
The audio from Adamson’s interviews with first responders are available at Baylor’s Institute for Oral History for students and faculty to listen to.
Both the explosion and the first responders’ efforts in West became national news, and on April 25, 2013, just days after the incident, President Obama made his way to Waco to speak at a memorial service held at Baylor. Former First Lady Michelle Obama and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry were also in attendance.
President Obama told those from West that he knew there would be “moments of doubt and pain and the temptation to wonder how this community will ever fully recover.”
“But today I see in the people of West, in your eyes, that what makes West special isn’t going to go away. And instead of changing who you are, this tragedy has simply revealed who you’ve always been,” Obama said. “You have been tested, West. You have been tried. You have gone through fire. But you are and always will be surrounded by an abundance of love.”
Perry also spoke at the memorial in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
“These are volunteers. Ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives,” Perry said. “They’re the ones who proudly said ‘not on my watch’ in the moments immediately following that explosion.”
In the years following the incident, West made strides to rebuild and overcome the losses it experienced.
ATF investigators ripped off the bandaid with their announcement in 2016 that said the fire at the West Fertilizer Company had been set deliberately. No suspects were ever named and many questioned the legitimacy of the ATF’s findings.
Baylor social work professor Jim Ellor told the Waco Tribune-Herald in 2018 that he still saw signs of long-term stress among the West community. Ellor was one of Baylor’s Crisis Intervention Team that volunteered their services in counseling to the people of West for several years.