Bill Minutaglio, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of “City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle.”
...The explosion in West, which killed at least 14 people, is now entering a dark pantheon of events in Texas, ones that will surely lead to debates in the state about government regulation and oversight — or the lack thereof. About what “public safety” really means, implies, entails. About Texas’ passionate history of pushing back at what some see as big-government intrusion — a trend that traces back to the regulation-free days of wildcatting in the oil patches.
As before, there will be demands that Texas be willing to scrutinize companies so tragedies like the one in West never occur again. But if history is any guide, lawmakers and officials will still err on the side of industry and less so on the side of public safety. And there will be another West in the years to come.
On April 16, 1947, in a Gulf Coast community called Texas City, a crowd of people had slowed to watch — and approach — pretty puffs of smoke in the town’s industrial area. Several 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer were on fire in a ship down on the waterfront. (Anhydrous ammonia, not ammonium nitrate, was the fertilizer in the West disaster.) Unsuspecting residents stared and waited for the firemen to perform their usual heroics. They had faith it would all turn out fine. Industrial fires periodically occurred and they were often easily, quickly, extinguished by the local fire department. But this one was different. Without warning, a mammoth explosion rocked the area for several miles, instantly killing scores of onlookers, including children....