Veterinary response launched after deadly explosion at fertilizer facility
The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, on April 17 created a wave of destruction that ripped through the small town, leaving at least 12 dead and nearly 200 injured in its wake. The impact was felt everywhere. Just a few miles down Interstate 35, the staff at Mid Texas Veterinary Clinic—inundated with animals injured or in need of shelter—was mourning for a coworker who lost her father, a first responder.
While residents grappled with the tragedy around them and rescue teams continued the desperate search for survivors, a full veterinary response was also engaged. The Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) was deployed at 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning, April 18.
“You got on the phone: Can you deploy, yes or no?” says Wesley Bissett, DVM, assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences and VET director, of his early morning assembly. The crew on site consists of five veterinarians, four veterinary technicians, four senior veterinary medical students and three support staff. “We can provide a fairly sizable response if it becomes necessary,” Bissett told dvm360 from his cell phone less than a half-mile from the explosion site. “We’ve got two of our trucks deployed on this event. A field response/ambulatory truck outfit is ready to go as well.”
But right then, it was quiet.
Since Thursday morning, the team hadn’t seen too many patients. “Right after the event, you won’t see animals,” Bissett says. “As time passes they’ll come out.” The team is awaiting the all clear from emergency officials that the disaster area is safe to enter. The heavily damaged area around the blast site is still locked down. “The expectation is as the day progresses that it does become safer, we’ll begin to see more animals.”
The team’s mission is twofold: provide veterinary medical support for the search and rescue mission and care for animals injured as a result of the disaster. Presently, six dogs are working with response crews and though the team hasn’t seen many animals in need of care. Bissett says it’s what he would expect. He’s seen animals affected by the trauma of going through the concussion of the blast, but no bad burns yet. He says it’s still early. “We do expect this to be more of a small animal event than a large animal event,” Bissett says. The area around the blast was mostly residential. “This is a small community with a lot of farmland around it.”
The threat of chemical exposure, specifically anhydrous ammonia, is still being managed. “That’s one of the reasons parts of the area are shut down,” Bissett says. “We don’t know whether that’s going to be a big issue with animals yet.”
What he does know is what he can see. Stationed several blocks from where the fertilizer facility still smolders, glass is out, doors are blown in, structures crippled on the ground. It may not be quiet much longer. “The search and rescue teams are out there identifying animal issues. We’re already seeing those reports come in,” Bissett says. Some animals may need medical attention; some may just need to be processed so they can be reunited with their owners.
The structural damage to homes around the blast site left many residents and pets homeless. “Certainly, that’s going to be an issue,” Bissett says. He says the Waco Humane Society is coordinating an emergency sheltering plan. “They [the animals] will be sheltered with all intents of reuniting—to bring owners and animals back together.”
Bissett says this disaster is different from those the team is usually deployed on, which happens two to three times a year. “They’re not all large responses, some are very small,” he says. This is both. “Geographically, it’s not that big of an area affected—but it was a tremendous blow. It’s a lot different than a big wildlife response. It’s contained but very severe.”
Bissett’s been getting e-mails from students all day wanting to join the effort. “We got really good support for this effort,” he says. “You got lots of people standing up saying they want to help.” Texas A&M includes emergency response in its veterinary school curriculum. “Every single student will go through their two week period where they’re immersed in emergency response,” Bissett says. “We’re prepared for this.”
Right now, he expects a three-day deployment. “It could be more than that. If we’re needed to be here longer, we’ll be here longer,” he says.