The Line of Fire

As noncareer firefighters, the thirty members of the West Volunteer Fire Department expected to have their work schedules upended,their dinners interrupted, and maybe for a little smoke to get in their eyes. What they didn’t expect was to face the greatest disaster their town had ever seen—and to lose some of their own.
EPA/Brandon Wade/Corbis

Although the city of West sits just off Interstate 35, on a stretch twenty miles north of Waco that is saturated with harried drivers, the town itself is tranquil. A couple of blocks from the highway, past the public elementary school and the 1912 yellow-brick city hall, a set of raised railroad tracks offers a view of West’s small, historic downtown, where on late afternoons the city’s relaxed rhythm is apparent. At Sam’s Barber Shop, Sam Pinter is usually sweeping the hair off the floor and tidying the combs and clippers. Around the corner, the night-shift bakers at the Village Bakery are starting to make kolaches in the cavernous back room, while locals begin to trickle in at the Czech-American Restaurant (“Home of the original Czech fries”) and Nors Sausage and Burger House, where they know to order the spicy link with a side of sauerkraut.

At the Old Corner Drug Store, where residents of West have had their prescriptions filled since the late 1800’s, closing time means finishing up a few last orders. This is what pharmacist Kirk Wines was doing on Wednesday, April 17, before heading out into the balmy spring evening. A robust 59-year-old with short white hair, he had served the town’s 2,800 people as a pharmacist for thirty years, and now, at 5:30, just like every other evening, he set the alarm, locked the doors, and walked out  to the back alley, where he’d parked his silver Ford truck. Turning on a sports radio station, he pulled onto a wide road and headed east to a well site where the local water co-op board, of which he was a member, had scheduled a brief meeting. As he drove, Wines passed homes with tidy lawns and porches, which eventually dropped away to reveal lush farmland.

After the meeting, Wines returned home to the one-story brick house he shared with his wife, just north of downtown. A little before 7:30, their son, Brad, stopped by to help his father fiddle with an old lawn tractor. The two were in Wines’s workshop when Wines heard his fire department pager go off. As a member of West’s all-volunteer force, he carried the battery-operated device at all times, and he was used to hearing the telltale beeps at inopportune moments. In the years since he’d joined, around 2000, he’d had to respond to emergency calls more than once a week, sometimes leaving the pharmacy in the middle of the day to put out a brush fire or spray down a car that had burst into flames. 

Wines leaned in to listen to the pager’s message, but it was so garbled he couldn’t understand it, and he kept tinkering with the tractor, waiting for some follow-up chatter. Within minutes, he heard clearly: a few of West’s volunteer firefighters had parked a fire truck at the public high school, not far from Wines’s house. Wines stepped outside and saw smoke rising in the distance. “I’ve got to go,” he told his son, and grabbed his keys.

As he drove to the firehouse to pick up his bunker gear, the source of the smoke became unmistakable: the West Fertilizer Company plant, on the north side of town, was ablaze, the fire’s enormous yellow plumes rising high above the two-story main building and its surrounding cluster of tanks and sheds. Wines accelerated, blinking his truck lights as a sign of emergency. He knew which guys were probably already on the scene: Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary, who at 29 was one of the youngest on the force; 50-year-old Douglas Snokhous and his 48-year-old brother, Robert, second-generation volunteers who also worked together at Central Texas Iron Works, in Waco; 32-year-old C. J. Gillaspie, the public works director; and 41-year-old Morris Bridges, a fire sprinkler technician and a relatively new member of the team. These men were most often the first to respond, but there were 29 men and 1 woman on the roster, and all of them would be en route shortly, including Tommy Muska, the 55-year-old mayor, who also ran a full-time insurance company; Stevie Vanek, the 55-year-old mayor pro tem, who owned a glass business; and George Nors Sr., the 67-year-old fire chief, who’d preceded Gillaspie as public works director before he retired. Like Wines, they all would be leaving their families and homes and rushing in. 

At 7:45 Wines pulled up to the fire station, a white building with red trim and walls of corrugated metal. He saw that the five garage doors were wide-open and the trucks were already gone. Wines drove right into the bay, passing under the sign that read “West Volunteer Fire Dept. Hose Co. No. 1.” An homage to the department’s 1890’s equipment, the sign featured an illustration of a horse pulling a red fire wagon. Wines yanked his gear out of a wood storage case in the back of the garage, pulled on his thick pants, snapped the suspenders up, heaved the mustard-colored jacket over his clothes, and grabbed his yellow helmet. Then he hurried back to his truck and steered toward the fire. He got as close as he could, but a safety roadblock in the street forced him to park several hundred feet away, so he tugged on his helmet, lurched out of the truck, and started running.

Wines knew, as all the firemen knew, that stored inside the plant were huge bins of ammonium nitrate, a granular fertilizer that was becoming less and less stable as the fire’s temperature rose. There were also tanks of anhydrous ammonia, which could easily leak or burst and spew the toxic gas all over the town. These tanks were the firefighters’ immediate concern; after all, anhydrous ammonia had been the primary reason for fire department runs to the plant in the past. The threat was especially serious given the plant’s location: though the 51-year-old main building had once been surrounded by large fields, over the years the city of West had grown up around it. Now the

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