In Advance of Fifth Anniversary of West Explosion, Baylor Author Interviews First Responders Who Were There

April 13, 2018

Amber Adamson shares five takeaways from her interviews with first responders impacted by explosion

Media Contact: Eric M. Eckert, 254-710-1964
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WACO, Texas (April 13, 2018) – April 17 marks the fifth anniversary of the fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in the town of West, Texas.

Twelve Central Texas first responders and three civilians died in the explosion the evening of April 17, 2013. More than 200 residents were injured and scores of houses were destroyed in the town of approximately 2,500 people. The explosion received national attention and brought then-President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to Waco for a memorial service at Baylor University.

The following year, Amber Adamson, lecturer in Baylor University’s Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media, penned a book, “The Last Alarm: First Responders' Stories of the West Explosion,” chronicling what it was like for first responders to deal with that event. Adamson recently received a fellowship from Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History to conduct a longitudinal study and re-interview 10 of the first responders who experienced the explosion.

“It was such an honor to be trusted with these stories for the book, and now to go back and re-interview many of the folks I haven’t seen in years was special,” Adamson said. “One thing I’ve learned over many years of interviewing is how important it is for people to be able to tell their stories. It’s a part of healing for many of them to know that their contributions that night, and in the days that followed, mattered. They made a difference.”

She identified several takeaways from her one-on-one interviews.

1. The scope of the impact wasn’t just felt in West.

“The reverberations from the blast that night five years ago were felt as far as North Texas. But even today, the impact is still felt across the state,” Adamson said. “By my account, there were at least 144 departments from across the country that offered their help. Anyone who set foot in West that night, and in the days that followed, will never be the same. Even five years later, the tears aren’t far from the surface for many.”

Irving Fire Department Chaplain J.R. Duncan, in his interview with Adamson, talked about the burden that he carried after spending weeks in West helping grieving families.

Bellmead Fire Chief William Hlavenka said the events of those days are still on his mind and sometimes he has flashbacks to what it was like in incident command.

2. Lessons learned means the fallen didn’t die in vain.

Doreen Strickland, Abbott Volunteer Fire Department president, lost friends that night, but she says, “they teach every day.” Though Strickland said they have moved on, part of keeping the memory of the fallen alive is using the experience as “a teaching tool. Unfortunately, so many gave their lives that night for teaching.”

“Others say they are more cautious in their profession, after seeing first-hand how quickly things can change,” Adamson said. “Hewitt Fire Chief Lance Bracco talked about the fact that everything they prepare for as firefighters was there in one massive scene, including hazmat, structure fires, search and rescue and triage. He told me, ‘That incident in West made us really focus on preplanning. What if something happened here?’”

3. Volunteer fire departments are critical to the safety of many people.

According to the latest data from the National Fire Protection Association, approximately 66.5 percent of our country’s fire departments are all volunteer and a 18 percent are mostly volunteer.

“Most of the response to the West explosion was from rural volunteer departments,” Adamson said. “These were the men and women who felt the ground shake, got a text or read about it on social media, and chose to go see how they could help.”

4. There is real concern for the future of volunteer fire departments.

As critical as they are to the safety of so many communities, the number of folks volunteering is shrinking, Adamson said of her findings.

Based on her interview with Dr. George Smith, West physician and medical director of West EMS, she learned that there’s concern that not enough young people are taking an interest in volunteering in their communities, and this, Smith believes, will become a problem as the older ones are slowing down and retiring, particularly first responders.

But there is hope in some communities, including the town Adamson grew up in.

“This week, I met a 16-year-old junior volunteer firefighter in the small town of Milford, Texas, who is excited about following in her parents’ footsteps and serving her community,” she said. “We need more excited young people like her.”

5. The most important thing the public can do on April 17 is to recognize the sacrifices of first responders and appreciate them.

Adamson said her interviews of the first responders revealed the common belief that all fire departments “have a common goal to get the job done.”

“The events of April 17, 2013, highlighted just how far first responders often have to go to protect life and preserve property,” she said. “Here’s what I took away from my interviews: as a legacy to those who lost their lives, in West and all those who have died in the line of duty, choosing to make that day one of gratitude toward first responders would be most fitting.”

“To hear one thank you is worth 10 years of service,” said Abbott’s Doreen Strickland during her interview, “because you never forget that person who says, ‘thank you.’”


Amber Adamson serves as lecturer in Baylor University’s Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media. Her book, “The Last Alarm: First Responders’ Stories of the West Explosion,” was published in May 2014. Adamson’s husband and brother are both career firefighters, and both her father and father-in-law were volunteer firefighters.


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