By Tim Gaynor and Colleen Jenkins
WEST, Texas (Reuters) - When Dr George N. Smith saw a plume of smoke rise from a Texas fertilizer plant, he rushed to the nursing home where he worked to save the elderly residents.
He and others quickly moved 127 residents from the side facing the plant, which was less than a quarter mile away, to the other side of the building away from the plant.
"I didn't ever anticipate an explosion," Smith said. "I was just trying to get them away from the toxic chemicals."
When the plant exploded, the windows on the side closest to the plant blew in. On the other side windows blew out.
"Had they been in the rooms where the windows blew in, they probably all would have been killed," Smith said in a telephone interview.
Lives were probably saved by the quick thinking of Smith and some other people in West, Texas, who acted during the 22 minutes between the first report of a fire at the plant and a massive explosion, residents and authorities said.
Fourteen people were killed in the explosion on April 17 at West Fertilizer Co, where hazardous materials such as dry ammonium nitrate and liquid anhydrous ammonia were stored. About 200 people were injured. The cause of the fire and explosion have not been determined. (for a map of the various locations near the explosion site, see http://link.reuters.com/neg67t)
Eleven of the 14 people killed were firefighters or paramedics who had rushed to help put out the fire. Four of the dead had just taken their final exam at an emergency medical technician class in West and gone to the blaze. They would have graduated from the class the next day.
Only three people other than first responders died from the fire and blast, according to the casualties list. They were a man rounding up horses in a pasture next to the plant, and two residents of a nearby apartment complex. A 96-year-old male resident of the nursing home died en route to the hospital after being evacuated, but the cause of death was not trauma.
WHY SO FEW CASUALTIES?
A question asked repeatedly in this Czech-American farming town of 2,700 people is: Why so few casualties in the residential area near the enormous blast?
There are several reasons, according to dozens of interviews with residents, police, firefighters and investigators.
A railroad track embankment shielded residents from the exploding plant. The town's siren alerted many people to scurry outside on a cool, clear evening to see the raging fire. Impromptu evacuations after people saw the blaze moved many people away from the blast. The evening explosion meant that children were not attending a nearby school.
The first 911 call came in at 7:29 p.m., according to records examined by Reuters.
"I am trying to call in a fire in West. It's the West Fertilizer plant," a female voice said calmly. "There's smoke coming out of the top of the building. You can hear the fire alarm going off."
At 7:51 p.m., a panicked woman called to report the explosion, and the 911 center was quickly flooded with calls. "Our house exploded," she said. "We need to get out of the house ... There's a freaking cloud. Look at that! Holy shit, something exploded. There's a fire," she said, and began to cry.
Luck saved some people from serious injury or death.
Volunteer firefighter Steve Vanek was in a business meeting when his pager went off signaling a fire. Because he was further away from the plant than some other first responders, he did not get there before the blast, and survived.
"I was about a quarter mile away in a fire truck when it exploded," said Vanek, who owns a glass company in town and also serves as temporary mayor.
Grandmother Vivian Green had slipped out of her house minutes before the blast to spin the reels on a video gaming machine at a game room downtown and away from the plant.
"God had his hand on me," Green said, echoing the view of many residents in this devoutly religious community.
While classes were not in session at the middle school near the plant which was destroyed in the blast, many residents of a 22-unit apartment complex nearby were home from work.
RAILROAD TRACK BERM
Trooper D.L. Wilson of the Texas Department of Public Safety said he is convinced that a railroad track embankment along the side of the plant facing the residential area saved lives.
The railroad track is located on top of an eight-foot- (2.4-metre-) tall berm that Wilson said deflected most of the force of the blast up into the air rather than toward the residential area.
"I have been down in that area and the blast went up," he said. "If that blast hadn't have gone up over the railroad track, it would have leveled more houses."
Wilson and others said the size and intensity of the initial fire, including the heat felt nearby, prompted people to flee or organize evacuations of the vulnerable.
While four of the 18 people in the EMT class went to the fire at the plant and were killed, the rest went to the apartment complex to warn residents.
Listening to music at their home, paramedic Bryce Reed and his wife Brittany, a nurse, heard the siren and jumped into their truck wearing flip flops and shorts to warn people nearby. "Get your kids and go!" the couple said they yelled at apartment complex residents. The Reeds were about 50 to 75 yards (meters) from the plant when the blast rocked their car.
Korean War veteran Willie Zahirniak and his wife Beulah live just 300 yards (meters) from the fertilizer plant. Seeing smoke billowing out of the inferno, they piled into a pickup. The blast shoved their truck sideways as they drove down the road.
"I have been to Korea. I saw a lot of artillery, but never a blast like that," Zahirniak said. The couple went back to their house and found it largely destroyed, except for a glass display cabinet with china angels his wife had collected.
Curiosity may have saved many people from more serious injuries, residents said. Raymond Kolar said a neighbor called his wife Tina out of their house to look at the smoke from the fire, saving her from flying glass when plant exploded.
Roman Catholic Priest Boniface Onjefu said that despite the devastating loss of life and property, the community was spared even greater harm.
In his sermon on Sunday, he recounted how the day after the blast, a wind pushed the poisonous fumes away from town. Then, a light rain fell to cool down the fire.
"God heard our prayers in West," he said.
(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)