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Watchdog: Accountability

Texas agency: Firefighters unprepared for blast

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Associated Press,Watchdog,Texas,Accountability

WEST, Texas — The firefighters who tried in vain to stop a burning Texas fertilizer plant from exploding weren't prepared for the dangers of the blaze, which was too big for them to fight, state investigators said in a new report.

The April 2013 blast at West Fertilizer Co. killed 15 people, including 12 men who were trying to stop the initial fire that investigators believe caused the detonation of stores of ammonium nitrate. The resulting explosion injured more than 200 people and leveled homes and schools in this tiny Central Texas city.

The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office presented the findings of its year-long investigation in a report Thursday. The report says the firefighters at the plant are not to blame, but were victims of a "systemic deficiency in ... training and preparation."

The report renews calls for state and local action to better prepare first-responders.

"The lack of adherence to nationally recognized consensus standards and safety practices for the fire department exposed firefighters to excessive risks and failed to remove them from a critically dangerous situation," the report said. "The strategy and tactics utilized by the West Volunteer Fire Department were not appropriate for the rapidly developing and extremely volatile situation, and exposed the firefighters to extreme risks."

Investigators have concluded that while firefighters pouring water did not cause the explosion, they were trying to stop a blaze "significantly beyond the extinguishment phase."

The report does not explain what caused the initial fire, which is perhaps the biggest remaining question about the tragedy. Federal and state investigators last year identified three possible causes of the fire: a golf cart battery, an electrical system or a criminal act.

The report echoes recommendations that fire experts and others who have investigated the blast have previously made. It says Texas should adopt training standards for volunteer firefighters and allow all counties to enact a fire code, which state law currently prohibits.

Local firefighters and agencies need to establish plans for dealing with large-scale commercial fires and hazardous materials such as ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer that is sold all over Texas.

The report also calls for a mandatory retrofitting of buildings that store ammonium nitrate to add sprinklers, which West Fertilizer Co. did not have.

Many of the first responders' widows, children and friends still live in the town of 2,800, known as a close-knit community with a strong Czech heritage inherited from the immigrants who settled there a century ago. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy introduced the report to some of them at a closed-door meeting Thursday night.

"It's very hard because my husband walked out of the door for a fire calls and never came back," said Carmen Bridges, the widow of firefighter Morris Bridges. "And it could have been prevented."

Speaking after the meeting, Bridges said she found some closure in hearing the fire marshal's findings and hoped they would help prevent a future incident.

"Everybody's going to learn something from this," she said.

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