Bloomberg Businessweek – West, Texas: The Town That Blew Up By Drake Bennett


July 03, 2013

By Drake Bennett

David Pratka and Kenneth Luckey Harris Jr. met in 2005, through their wives, and quickly became close friends. Both lived in West, Texas—Harris several miles out in the country—and both loved music, if not always the same kind. Pratka, a computer technician, was a devotee of the wry, spare aesthetic of Texas country, and disdainful of the bubble-gum bombast of Nashville. Harris, a captain in the Dallas fire department who went by his middle name, was more of an equal-opportunity enthusiast. Both men played bass guitar. Harris hadn’t performed in years, but so long as he wasn’t on duty, he and his wife would be there when Pratka’s band, Spivey Crossing, played local festivals and bars.

On April 17 they were at Pratka’s house, a single-story, brick four-bedroom in town. The 41-year-old Pratka had recently set up a makeshift studio in the detached garage out back, and Harris, 52, had brought over his nieces so Pratka could record them singing duets. Harris grilled hamburgers on the back porch, taking breaks to poke his head into the studio to listen for a few minutes. Strongly built and balding, with a trim fireman’s moustache, he’d come straight from work and was still wearing his navy blue Dallas fire department T-shirt and baseball cap.

Around 7:20, while much of the country watched coverage of the hunt for the second Boston bombing suspect, everyone sat down for dinner. Fifteen minutes later, Pratka’s older son, Conner, burst into the house, short of breath. The 9-year-old had been sent on an errand to his grandparents’, a few blocks away, and biking over, he had seen smoke, lots of it, coming from the local feed and fertilizer plant just across the railroad tracks. He had warned his grandparents, then sprinted home.


West, Texas: A Week After the Blast

In West, nothing is far from anything else. Drive east from the interstate that marks the western edge of town, and in six blocks you’re at the train tracks. Two blocks farther, farmland resumes. When the West Fertilizer Co. plant was built in 1962, it was north of town, surrounded by the farms and ranches it supplied. Over the decades, though, West crept toward it. Today the plant is neighbored by two schools and, across a small park to its west, a two-story apartment complex. On the other side of the apartment block is the local nursing home, West Rest Haven, and stretching away to the north and south are some of the bigger homes in town.

An aerial view of the blast crater in West

Photographs by Michael Friberg for Bloomberg Businessweek

An aerial view of the blast crater in West

Everyone at Pratka’s house rushed to the yard, where the black column of smoke was impossible to miss. Approaching sirens were audible. Harris told Pratka to get his keys so they could take a closer look. It took barely a minute for the two of them, with Conner, to drive over to the apartment complex in Pratka’s white Ford Explorer. As they pulled up at the end of the alley between the building and the park, with its basketball hoops and playground, they could see flames towering over the plant.


Texas Fertilizer Explosion Recalls French Disaster

Harris had fought chemical and industrial fires often in his 31 years as a firefighter and, seeing the size of the blaze, said he wanted to make sure the local volunteers knew what they were up against. The plant often stored significant quantities of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive solid fertilizer, but Harris was primarily concerned about fumes from anhydrous ammonia, a liquefied gas fertilizer kept at the plant in pressurized tanks. Anhydrous ammonia is toxic when inhaled. “Go home,” Harris told Pratka. “And if you start smelling things y’all get out of town.” Then he climbed the railroad embankment that separated the park from the plant, crossed the tracks, and dropped out of sight. Workers confront the wreckage

Photographs by Michael Friberg for Bloomberg Businessweek

Workers confront the wreckage

Until this spring, West was known to Texans mainly as a culinary destination. The town is 80 miles south of Dallas, near midway on the drive to Austin. For decades travelers would pull off I-35 when they reached West for kolaches, a Czech stuffed pastry available in either sweet or savory varieties; the town is to Texas kolaches as Coney Island is to New York hot dogs. Some of the earliest settlers were Czech immigrants who had come to the area for the cheap plots of fertile blackland prairie. Many of their descendants still live there, and residents cite their strong Czech identity as the source of a solidarity notable even for small-town Texas.



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