April 17, 2013, was not just another day in the life of the firefighters and emergency workers who responded to the West Fertilizer Co. disaster. Twelve of them, in fact, died in the explosion that leveled the fertilizer plant and ripped a hole in the town of West, Texas.
Still, when Baylor University lecturer Amber Adamson asked several dozen first responders if she could interview them for a book about the explosion, she said they were “confused as to why I actually wanted to talk to them.”
“They didn’t think that what they did was extraordinary,” Adamson told EHS Today. “They didn’t think what they did was worthy of being chronicled.”
Adamson’s new book, “The Last Alarm: First Responders’ Stories of the West Explosion,” shares the first-person accounts of more than 40 first responders and features transcripts of 911 calls, biographies of the victims and heretofore unpublished photos from the tragedy.
Adamson, whose husband is a firefighter in Waco and brother is a firefighter in Red Oak, emphasized that the first responders welcomed her interview requests with open arms, even if they were a bit sheepish about the attention. She believes that her family connections helped opened doors that might not have been opened for most writers or reporters.
“Everyone had a different perspective and a different take on it,” she said. “But all of them were honored to be part of the response in some way.”
The other common thread, Adamson told EHS Today, is that “most, if not all of them, got rather emotional talking about it.”
“Several people mentioned that it put their mortality into perspective,” Adamson said. “It made many of them think back to an incident where, by the grace of God, it wasn’t them. And they think, ‘That could’ve been me, or that could’ve been my brother or my best friend.’”
Adamson marvels at the fact that only three civilians were killed in the explosion – something she attributes to “divine intervention” and the bravery of the first responders, law enforcement officials and citizens who helped get people out of harm’s way. Their time window was tight: The first 911 call came in at 7:29 p.m. local time, and the fertilizer plant exploded around 7:51 p.m.
“They went in thinking that it might be a fire that they could contain, and quickly realized, because of personnel and equipment and water supply, that it was not the ideal situation for them to be fighting the fire,” Adamson said. “So they were calling for help and backing away when [the plant] exploded.”
Tragically, some of the first responders who died in the blast were in town to take a practice test for national EMS certification. But Adamson noted that some of those individuals also helped evacuate residents from a nearby apartment complex, which undoubtedly saved many lives.
Even in light of such acts of heroism, Adamson went into the project resolving not to use the word “hero,” as first responders are “terribly humble” by nature.
“It’s not the way they are at all,” she said. “They don’t know what they’d be doing if they weren’t firefighters or EMTs or paramedics, because maybe their grandfather or their father did it, or they just grew up hanging out with the volunteer fire department. It just is who they are – they’re just good people.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the tragedy failed to discourage the firefighters and emergency workers but rather steeled their resolve to continue to help people.
“Some of the volunteer fire departments – particularly West – that lost so many of their members had people step up and fill those spots,” Adamson said. “And in other smaller departments that I talked to, folks who had fallen off the map and had stopped attended meetings or running calls came back.”
Adamson noted that a portion of the proceeds from the book will benefit the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, whose volunteers provide assistance to the families of fallen firefighters and emergency responders. Many of the digital recordings and transcripts from her face-to-face interviews for the book will be preserved in Baylor’s Institute for Oral History.