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Firefighters survey the devastation after a catastrophic explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas .

How a fertilizer plant in Texas ignited like a shrapnel-filled bomb, and how Chicago would respond

by Neil Holt
Apr 18, 2013

The tragic bombing in Boston and the explosion in Texas, though vastly different in scale, both harnessed the same scientific principles to unleash devastating destruction.

The fire at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, turned the plant into what was essentially a gigantic shrapnel-filled bomb, said Justin Mattingly, a industrial chemical engineer who works with pressurized vessels..

“Explosions are violent releases of potential energy,” Mattingly said.

By comparison Boston explosions were limited in scale because they had less potential energy, according to Mattingly. Reports out of Boston indicated that pressure cookers were fashioned into makeshift bombs. Mattingly said that the Boston explosions could only create blasts as large as the potential energy of pressure in the cooker plus the relatively small amount of explosive fuel packed inside allowed.

The Texas explosion involved an immense inventory of fuel.  

“The Waco explosion had such an immense amount of potential energy due to the basically unlimited fuel source - fertilizer in a fertilizer plant,”

Shrapnel also escalated the damage from both explosions. The pressure cooker bombs were stuffed with nails and other objects that were projected into the air from the force of the explosion. The “shrapnel” in Texas was less traditional.

“The blast wave from the explosion and subsequent explosions turned anything - hand tools, nuts, bolts, microwaves in the cafeteria, into potentially lethal shrapnel,” Mattingly said.

Chicago area emergency services experts say they have strict protocol to prepare for catastrophic situations like these, and that sometimes saving lives can take precedence over procedure.

Jeff McMaster, assistant chief of the Dekalb Fire Department, said that Illinois state law requires businesses to disclose hazardous materials they work with to the state. This information is kept on file at fire departments and allows them to know what dangerous situations they might face.

“We talk to the experts of the facility and see what chemicals are there before we approach,” McMaster said.

McMaster said that caution is the main concern if a fire at a hazardous site is not life threatening, but the firefighters in Texas had lives on the line.

“If we know there’s savable souls, we’re not just going to stand back and read the paperwork,” McMaster said.

Firefighters aren’t the only ones who work to save lives in an emergency. Dr. Eric H. Beck, medical director for the EMS System for the city said that Chicago is particularly well prepared for disasters, fresh out of drills and rehearsals for the 2012 NATO Summit, that helped the city refine its emergency preparedness and response plans.

Beck said the plans allow for altered strategies depending on the scale of a disaster, with resources spanning across the city, region and state and response plans for all hazards.

“It would work well for, God forbid, a biological or terrorist attack,” Beck said.