Photo by Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News
An extra minute or a spare few inches can mean everything when disaster threatens. Folks in West think about that a lot these days — those tiny increments of space and time that stand between life and death. Around sunset on April 17, fire was consuming a West Fertilizer Co. warehouse just beyond the city’s northeast border. In the precious minutes after the fire broke out at 7:29 p.m., emergency personnel had to react without pausing to consider the danger ahead. Flames towered over the town, out of control, unlike anything West had ever seen. Firefighters knew the warehouse housed tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a potentially explosive chemical. Outside, tanks of toxic anhydrous ammonia gas were in danger of rupturing from the intense heat.
Downwind, within 200 yards, the West Terrace apartments and West Rest Haven nursing home were enveloped in heavy smoke. Hundreds needed to be moved to safety. Someone needed to buy them those tiny increments of space and time.
Firefighters and paramedics, backed by civilian volunteers, put themselves directly in harm’s way on that evening as the dangers grew. Call them heroes, but they’ll deny it. They were just doing what had to be done.
It was 7:51 p.m. when quiet, tiny West became a world news epicenter. A blast powerful enough to kill hundreds left a death toll of 15. Ten were emergency responders whose heroism and self-sacrifice, we believe, delayed disaster and saved lives. Two civilians there to help paid the ultimate price as well.
All those who answered the call in West make us proud to be Texans. They are the 2013 Dallas Morning News Texans of the Year.
Reporters and investigators have prodded them for details to the point of exasperation. Yet the survivors paused to retell their stories to this newspaper — not for self-aggrandizement, but to thank their maker, underscore their friends’ heroism and maybe make sense of an unfathomable tragedy.
“We knew it could explode, but we didn’t know it could do that damage that it did,” said Robby Payne, one of the volunteer firefighters at the plant that evening.
Payne, 52, knows death better than anyone else in West. As president of the only funeral home…Continued here: http://res.dallasnews.com/interactives/2013_December/texan-of-the-year/west/