The fertilizer storage facility explosion in West, Texas April 17, got the attention of Edgecombe County Emergency Manager Butch Beach and Tarboro Fire Department Chief Frankie Winslow.
The explosion killed 14 people, including several emergency responders, and left more than 160 injured. The blast leveled West Fertilizer Co., destroyed dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a middle school and a nursing home in the vicinity. The cause of the explosion remains under investigation.
However, initial reports points to the possibility of a large volume of ammonium nitrate that was stored in the facility. Ammonium nitrate is the highly explosive chemical compound used in the domestic terror attack on the Oklahoma City federal building.
Both Beach and Winslow said that while there are no facilities in Edgecombe County that store a significant volume of ammonium nitrate, but the Texas explosion made them turn their attention to other possible dangers.
"Anytime something like that happens, all emergency responders began to think about is whether there is anything in their district that could cause a problem," Beach said. "Fortunate for us, we don't have any buildings, that I'm aware of, that store a significant amount of ammonium nitrate. I don't know of anybody that carries more than 400 pounds. But we do have trains that run through the county that carry chemicals."
Winslow explained that CSX uses precautions while carrying chemicals that could cause an explosion if mixed.
"What they do is split them, one in the front and the other in the back," Winslow explained.
With a mutual aid agreement with CSX and Edgecombe County Fire and Rescue, Winslow believes Tarboro is prepared to handle possible crisis concerning the railroad. But it's not the railroad that causes Winslow the most concerns.
"I know that we have a train that runs through here about three or four times a day, but my main concerns are the 18-wheelers. … We don't know what's on them," he said. "They may have mixed loads and their trucks may be marked with placard but that doesn't mean that's what on the trucks."
Captain Kevin Whitehead agreed.
"I-95 is a major artery," Whitehead said."U.S. 64 is a vein and when they come off of that artery to the vein and jump Western Boulevard, they are right in our area. We don't know what they have, whether they dropped that hazardous material or whether they forgot to put a placard on the truck."
Whitehead, along with Mark Rogerson, the assistant fire marshall under Beach, is on the Williamston Hazmat team, which responds to disasters that are caused by hazardous materials, such as ammonia nitrate.
"It's great asset to have someone in our county who is on that team," Beach said. "With his (Rogerson) expertise, he can diagnose a potential hazard a lot quicker than it would take for the entire team to respond."
Winslow can also boast about having Whitehead in his department. The captain trains the department once a year in hazardous material scenarios.
Other scenarios that Tarboro and Edgecombe practice to prevent hazardous material disasters are a yearly inspection for all industries and businesses.
"In our business, it is better to proactive then reactive," Beach said. "Therefore, if a disaster of this magnitude occurs, it prompts us to look at the plans and procedures that we have in place. If there is something that we need to improve on, we would do just that.
"Disasters of this nature is an example of why we have mutual aid agreements with so many different departments. All of them have had some type of hazard material training or detection.
Emergency responding departments that makes up Edgecombe County mutual aid are; Edgecombe County Emergency Management, Tarboro Fire Department, Rocky Mount Fire Department, N.C. Forestry Service, Edgecombe County Rescue and 14 volunteer fire departments including, West Edgecombe, Macclesfield, South Edgecombe, Pinetops, Conetoe, Speed, Princeville, Leggett, Heartsease, Lewis Community, Battlesboro, Sharspburg, Whitakers and Fountain.