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WEST, Texas — Joey Pustejovsky loved that jackalope. On Christmas 2012 he unwrapped the gag gift from his mother-in-law. His wife, Kelly, couldn’t believe what her mother did. “I was kind of embarrassed,” she said.
But Joey, an avid hunter with a sense of humor similar to his mother-in-law’s, exclaimed how excited he was to display the mythical animal — a jackrabbit with an antelope’s antlers — in their living room.
On the evening of April 17, 2013, Joey was on his way to pick up Kelly’s oldest daughter from catechism classes at St. Mary’s Assumption Catholic Church. It was another quiet Wednesday night in the Central Texas town, known for its kolache pastries and Czech heritage.
Then, shortly after 7:30 p.m., his pager for the volunteer fire department went off. Before he answered the call, he called his wife, telling her she now needed to pick up her daughter.
“He told me the fertilizer plant was supposedly on fire, and he said he was going to be home in a little bit,” she said. “He told me he loved me.”
Joey and Kelly married in March 2012, building a new family with their four children from previous marriages. In a small town like West, Joey had to wear many hats — city secretary, treasurer for the fire department, Catholic Church congregant. But it was Joey’s firefighting that concerned his wife, who tried to talk him out of doing it. Memories of the firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 haunted Kelly. But Joey remained dedicated to the volunteer fire department, and Kelly wasn’t going stop him from fulfilling one of his dreams.
Kelly drove to West High School, where she saw the fire truck her husband usually rode in parked by a hydrant about 100 yards from the West Fertilizer Co. plant. When she got closer, Kelly realized her husband and his friends were dealing with a significant fire. She figured she’d see if he needed something to eat.
As she was parking, the fertilizer plant exploded.
“I thought I got hit by a school bus,” she said.
Those near the plant felt the heat all around them. Kelly’s instincts pushed her to run toward the fire truck where she thought her husband was.
Where’s Joey? Where’s Joey?
As the chaos unfolded, no one could tell Kelly where Joey was. That was just 20 minutes after he said he’d be home later and that he loved her. Two days later, she got confirmation of what she knew deep down but had refused to believe: Her husband was dead. He was 29 years old.
“It is still so unbelievable to me,” she said. “I think he’s out of town and that he’ll be back. That’s what gets me through, honestly. Another part of me realizes he’s never coming home.”
In a town of fewer than 3,000 people, everyone lost someone.
I thought I got hit by a school bus.
Inside the plant, 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical that’s principally used in fertilizers and occasionally in construction explosions, had ignited, leaving a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Investigators later estimated the explosion was at least three times as powerful as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, another fertilizer-fueled explosion. Debris was thrown as far as two and a half miles away. Fifteen people were killed, hundreds were injured, 150 buildings were destroyed, and the cleanup costs have topped $100 million.
After the West disaster one year ago, there was an immediate public outcry over ammonium nitrate storage. Despite that and the state’s history of catastrophic incidents involving the chemical, there are no regulations or oversight in Texas. In a state that has almost 100 of the nation’s 800 fertilizer plants holding five tons or more of ammonium nitrate, critics warn that Texas may endure more tragedies like the one in West.
“This is ‘Groundhog Day’ in Texas — over and over again,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin. “We aren’t learning from previous events where lives have been lost.”
“We are here because of West.”
Chris Connealy has said this statement many times in the last year. He shows photos of the devastation, reiterates the nine-digit figure to rebuild the town and stresses that what happened in West could happen at any facility storing large amounts of ammonium nitrate. In the year since the explosion, Connealy, the state’s fire marshal, has traveled across the state advising communities with ammonium nitrate facilities about safe storage.
In Texas, 97 facilities store five tons or more of the compound, Connealy said. Last year, The Dallas Morning News found that 20,000 Texans live within a half-mile of the more than 70 sites that reported storing large amounts of ammonium nitrate.
Earlier this month, Connealy traveled to Palo Pinto, a town of hundreds about 60 miles west of Fort Worth. It’s the 14th county he has visited since December in hopes of reaching all 66 counties with ammonium nitrate facilities.
“It’s a relatively stable product,” Connealy tells the 18 men in attendance at Palo Pinto, “except when you expose it to fire.”
Connealy is a state fire marshal without a state fire code. The State Fire Marshal’s Office has no authority to conduct any inspections or impose any oversight for ammonium nitrate storage. In the immediate aftermath of the West explosion, at least five facilities with large quantities of ammonium nitrate turned away state fire marshal inspectors, with no repercussions.
“The West Fertilizer Plant is no longer there,” he said. “We don’t want to see that happen again. But right now, we’re very limited in what we can do. We’re providing information, but there’s no mandate in place [for these facilities].”
He is confident that change will come next year in how Texas handles ammonium nitrate storage, but the lack of oversight and accountability from the state government has been a point of contention for critics.
After the West blast, the finger pointing began. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality steered away from any responsibility. Chairman Bryan Shaw said that it was the job of the State Chemist Office to oversee the safe storage of ammonium nitrate. Tim Herrman, the state chemist, refuted that claim, clarifying that his office only checks on security from theft and doesn’t perform any checks on explosive risks. With the state Legislature not reconvening until 2015 and Rick Perry moving out of the governor’s mansion in nine months, there’s no sense that anything will change in the near future.
The TCEQ declined an interview request from America Tonight. Repeated interview requests to Perry and the State Chemist Office were not returned.
“It’s really negligent on the part of these officials, because we’re talking about everyone trying to pass the buck,” said the EDF’s Craft. “No one wants to be held responsible or accountable when something bad happens.”
An inescapable past
In West, memories of death are unavoidable. Driving through the town, landmarks are daily reminders of the devastation that began one year ago.
There’s the welding company run by the Snokhous family, who lost brothers Robert and Doug, both volunteer firefighters.
There’s the Rest Haven nursing home, where more than a dozen survivors of the blast died weeks later. The nursing home’s administrator said the stress and trauma from the explosion played at least some role in their deaths.
There’s the family of three who were watching the fire from home when the explosion blew out their windows. The shattered glass permanently blinded them.
There’s the son of one victim who falls deep into depression the more he talks about the night he didn’t go with his dad to help out with what seemed like a minor fire down the road.
The aftermath in West is a reminder of the state’s jarring history of ammonium nitrate accidents. An April 1947 explosion on the SS Grandcamp in the port of Texas City remains the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, with 581 people killed and another 5,000 injured. Rebuilding cost $100 million. In July 2009, a fire caused by the improper storage of ammonium nitrate at the El Dorado Chemical Plant in Bryan caused no deaths but forced more than 80,000 residents to evacuate.
For 12 years, Neil Carman was an inspector for the TCEQ and witnessed firsthand how the commission’s regulation of fertilizer plants has been “a facade.” Under the Clean Air Act, inspections of facilities are prioritized based on their levels of air pollution. But fertilizer plants tend to emit little and thus often fall through the cracks, sometimes going years between inspections, he said.
“We just had lists of these small industrial facilities. But in terms of regulations, there really wasn’t much that would apply,” said Carman, who now leads the Clean Air Program for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “The state of Texas does not want to impose too many regulations on the businesses because they argue it will cost money.”
Nationwide, oversight of the storage of chemicals like ammonium nitrate is equally messy. Last summer, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, testified before Congress about ammonium nitrate storage safety in fertilizer facilities. The CSB’s investigation is ongoing, but documents obtained by America Tonight reveal that the CSB’s examination is focusing on the West plant’s use and storage of ammonium nitrate and its proximity to West residents. In his testimony Moure-Eraso said that fertilizer plants were long regulated by statutes he described as “a patchwork that has many large holes.”
The state of Texas does not want to impose too many regulations on the businesses because they argue it will cost money.
Director, Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter
Since some of the regulations can be easily ignored, “a lot of ammonium nitrate fertilizer operations seem to be outside the radar of the regulatory system,” Moure-Eraso warned.
The West explosion did, however, resonate at the White House. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August in an effort to overhaul U.S. oversight of chemical safety. Trade and lobby groups formed a nonprofit called ResponsibleAg, which set up program in which state auditors inspect businesses such as fertilizer plants every three years to see if they meet federal and state regulations. Still, the industry-led program is voluntary, and there are no penalties for not correcting safety issues after inspections.
“We have a challenge in communicating the goals of the program and educating all of our stakeholders on what we’re trying to do,” says Chris Jahn, president of the Fertilizer Institute, which, along with the Agricultural Retailers Association, created the voluntary program. “As we move forward, we will be very transparent about the program and share the results with the public and make sure they understand that our goal is to keep workers and communities as safe as possible.”
Memorials and mausoleums
Walking down Reagan Street, West Mayor Tommy Muska points out homes by naming who lives in them — his friends and constituents. The lifelong West resident and popular third-year mayor who doesn’t know a stranger jokes with the local contractors, also his friends.
He turns serious when discussing the reality of a $100 million cleanup and rebuilding effort. The destruction led the Chemical Safety Board to call the community damage in West “the worst of any chemical accident in the [board’s] history.”
“We’ve come a long way in less than a year, especially this area,” Muska says of the street, two blocks from the former plant. “This was the most devastated by the explosion. This is where the most force occurred, so all these homes were completely demolished.” The explosion that changed his town blew Muska, who was a block and a half from the site, back about six feet. He didn’t see any flames, just a big ball of smoke.
He likens the town, known for the pork and fruit kolaches at the Czech Stop off Interstate 35, to a modern Mayberry. He’s done many of these interviews in the past year, saying repeatedly that the town is not going to die on his watch. Like Connealy, Muska is confident that change is on the way in how the state handles ammonium nitrate sites. But he’s learned that the state hasn’t learned from its mistakes concerning the chemical’s storage.
“I think [the explosion] has opened up a lot of people’s eyes as to where ammonium nitrate and other chemicals are stored,” Muska said. “If there’s any benefit for the fallen firefighters and first responders that died, it would be that somebody learned a lesson and it doesn’t happen to somebody else.”
The rebuilding process is encouraging but difficult. Adair Grain, the company that oversaw the plant, only had $1 million in liability insurance, covering about 1 percent of the total property damage. Sixty-eight homes are being built from the ground up, said Muska, with 24 of them already occupied. Another 138 homes are being rebuilt.
“That explosion is not going to define these people,” he said.
If there’s any benefit for the fallen firefighters and first responders that died, it would be that somebody learned a lesson and it doesn’t happen to somebody else.
mayor of West
Even with the effort to return to normality, pockets of West remain devastated.
Inside the garage of a home near where the fertilizer plant once stood, the smell of rat urine is overwhelming. Old signs, stained bed comforters, damp blankets, tattered clothes and soda cans are littered across the boarded-up ranch home with the spray-painted blue X up front. It used to be the home of Morris Bridges, a volunteer firefighter and fire sprinkler technician. When he was called in to help with the fire at the fertilizer plant, he told his infant son he loved him and told his wife, Carmen, that he’d be right back. He was 41.
On West Pecan Street, the Pustejovsky home is something of a memorial site. Two stars from Kelly and her stepson, Parker, are pinned on a tree in the front yard to honor their hero. Photos of Joey cover the home — from a collage in the bedroom hallway to a blanket on the living room recliner.
Kelly looks at the jackalope on the wall. She laughs, knowing she’ll probably never take down the ugly thing. It’s one of many memories of her husband and the love they had — and how that love could have been preserved.
“Fifteen lives could have been saved if ammonium nitrate storage was monitored anytime before the catastrophe,” Kelly said. “Looking at the circumstances and the reports that came out about how much was stored there — this tragedy could have been prevented, and I believe that with all my heart.”
Today where the fertilizer plant once stood is now a wide brown patch of land, with only some remnants of the explosion. People stop and take pictures of the site. A white cross with a tattered mini U.S. flag is covered with messages from the families of the victims. Even in faded blue ink, Kelly’s message to her husband is still clear.
I miss you and love you, Joey Pustejovsky! Can’t wait to see you again.
Love always, Kelly Pustejovsky
(Serene Fang contributed to this report. Edited by Dave Gustafson and Claire Gordon.)