74° F Wednesday, April 26, 2017

By Ed Sterling

Contributing Writer

An explosion on April 17 at a fertilizer storage and distribution company in the city of West left at least 14 people dead and an estimated 200 injured.

Counted among the dead were 10 volunteer firefighters who were called to the scene to extinguish a fire discovered there. As they fought the fire, an explosion powerful enough to knock down a nearby school and an apartment complex occurred at 7:50 p.m. Flames and the shockwave from the blast burned homes, shattered windows and incapacitated infrastructure up to several blocks away.

Officials said the blast, deafening in intensity, shook the ground like an earthquake. Dozens of people remain unaccounted for and search efforts have been continuous. Help from all directions poured into the city of about 3,000 people located between Waco and Hillsboro on Interstate 35.

“Like most small towns, West is a tight-knit community where neighbors look after each other and join together in times of need,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety Division of Emergency Management. “Local firefighters — most who work on a volunteer basis — medical personnel, town officials, and countless others came together last night under the most difficult of circumstances.”

Gov. Rick Perry on April 18 signed an emergency proclamation certifying that the explosion has caused a disaster in McLennan County. On April 19, Perry toured the city of West to get a firsthand look at the damage and to check relief operations.

Ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, the two main ingredients in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, were present in quantity at the West Fertilizer Company on April 17. Both chemicals are commonly used in row crop production.

Officials must conduct forensic testing before they determine the actual cause of the blast. The Dallas Morning News on April 21 reported that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies are investigating what happened.

Job count drops in March

Texas Workforce Commission on April 19 reported the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for March was 6.4 percent, unchanged from the previous month and down from 7.0 percent a year ago.

But, seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment fell by 4,100 jobs in March. Employers added 14,900 jobs across five major industries in March, but these gains were offset by the loss of 19,000 jobs in six other industries, the Texas Workforce Commission reported.

Senate moves legislation

Two bills having to do with quick response to armed intruders on school campuses were passed by the state Senate last week.

Senate Bill 1857 by Sen. Craig Estes. R-Wichita Falls, would create a special training program for teachers and other school employees focusing “on how an armed concealed carry license holder should interact with the police during an active shooter situation, ways to keep intruders out of the classroom and training to improve accuracy under duress.”

SB 17 by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, would provide school districts with funding assistance to send up to two employees to concealed carry training at no cost to the district. Both bills do not change current laws as to “who can carry where,” according to the Senate News Service.

In other news, the Senate Natural Resources Committee on April 16 approved HB 4 by Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, and a long list of coauthors, legislation creating the state water infrastructure fund of Texas. Separate legislation will pull up to $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund and that money would be used to pay for projects, under the watchful eye of the Legislature. The bill now moves to the full Senate for debate.

SBOE passes resolution

On a 10-5 vote, the State Board of Education on April 19 approved a resolution that calls on the Texas Legislature “to reject all vouchers, taxpayer savings grants, tax credits, or any other mechanism that have the effect of reducing funding to public schools or limiting accountability or transparency for public tax dollars.”

The resolution asserts that those things “do not provide accountability or transparency for state tax dollars and do not provide all parents and children with school choice due to the lack of transportation accompanying the voucher.”
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