Friday, April 26, 2013

President, 10,000 people honor fallen firefighters

1953 decision signaled new law for victims of 1947ammonium nitrate blast at Texas City

My brother lived his dash... - brother of a firefighter felled at West, Texas 

Waco – In the ancient elemental scheme of air, fire, water and Earth, this time water and air conspired against men to make fire.


It was the angry, unreasoning, all-consuming kind that consumes all – everything – in an instant of mad consumption that sucks the air out of heaven and goes bang, shaking Earth, herself, to her very roots.

The fire at the West Fertilizer Co. at first displayed the startlingly bright shade of orange that so fascinates observers every time ammonium nitrate burns, and as it burned, the heat gained critical mass, a moment when it leveled 70 houses and left the people who live in homeless, killed 12 firefighters who battled the blaze, and left an additional three elderly persons who lived in a nearby rest home dead.

Experts estimate $100 million in damage.

That is how volatile the chemical compound ammonium nitrate can be when it gets wet and begins to heat past the point of explosion. When combined with petroleum distillates, it takes on the dual purpose of one of the world's most effective blasting agents.

Yesterday, the nation gathered around televisions and computers as a standing room only audience left Baylor University's 10,000-seat basketball arena with only a few vacancies – 4,000 of them occupied by visiting firefighters from many states.

They watched as each of 12 families who lost loved ones who first responded to the blaze told the world about their fireman – a father, brother, uncle – and what he meant to them.

Their names are Robert Snokhous, Perry Wayne Calvin, Cody Dragoo, Douglas James Snokhous, Jerry Chapman, Jimmy Ray Matus, Kevin William Sanders, William Ray Uptmor, Morris Bridges, Kenneth Luckey Harris, Jr., Joseph Joe Frank Putjovsky, Jr., and Cyrus Adam Reed.

One man referred to the dash between a man's birth date and the date of his death by saying, “My brother lived his dash.” His words bore mute testimony to the lively sports-minded, outdoorsy and crafty nature of each of the victims.

The political tableau resembled an incongruous Mount Rushmore grouping in a nation so divided by fiscal concerns, wars inside and outside its borders, social policies, and the means by which one may protect family and friends from violent aggression.

Dignitaries from every political persuasion, both left and right, lined up on-stage and in VIP seating to pay their respects to the men who battle this emergency on a daily basis and risk their lives with the insouciance of pragmatism braced by the heroic beau geste of a cavalier, a man on horseback who will face hell's fire to save the lives of his neighbors.

That's the kind of primordial, universal and terrifying enemy that fire and explosion really represents to men and women of reason and good will.

You could hear it in their voices, hushed and respectful.

The ancient Biblical quote was voiced over and over during the ceremonies, that a man can “give no greater gift” than to lay down his life to save that of a friend.

Judge Ken Starr, once a special prosecutor who took on a President and First Lady for alleged high crimes and misdemeanors that ultimately led to a nearly successful bid to impeach President William Jefferson – Slick Willie – Clinton, and now holds down the top job at the nation's largest private religious university, harkened the words of “America's great poet laureate,” Robert Frost.

An appointee of President John F. Kennedy and a fellow Massachusetts man, Mr. Frost wrote a famous poem about mending fences, verse that concluded “Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Today,” said Judge Starr, “there are no fences.”

Gov. Rick Perry voiced similar sentiments, as did a staunchly conservative Sen. John Cornyn.

And when President Barack Hussein Obama took to the microphone, he quoted a Psalm about the nation of Israel having been tested by fire and by water.

The stage craft of one of the world's great institutions of higher learning told the story under bright lights – in stereo and in high definition video images – and no one came away from the ceremonies with anything other than a profound respect for what took place a few minutes after 7 pm on April 17, 2013, an event that took place 66 years after what is considered the world's worst industrial accident, the ammonium nitrate blast at Texas City on April 18, 1947.

Aside from taking the lives of 405 identified and 63 unidentified persons, the explosion that occurred when 3,300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded and set off chain reactions at the Monsanto Chemical Co. and the Union Carbide plant, set new precedent in federal law.

There were 5,000 injuries, and half that number of hospitalizations.

In 300 wrongful death and property damage cases combined and heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as Dalehite v. U.S. (346 U.S. 15), the very basic nature of the interpretation of the Federal Torts Act was forever altered to include government culpability due to regulation as to the production quotas of ammonium nitrate set by the War Production Office during World War Two, and carried forward post-war.

The government continued to require the production at war time quota levels due to a need for fertilizer in Europe and Japan.

Excessive moisture figured in both disasters, moisture that led to heat and the resulting rapid ignition of a fuel and air resulting first in fire, and then in a violent explosion.

At quitting time on Thursday, April 17, 2013, the most trusted man in Central Texas broadcast meteorology, Rusty Garrett of KWTX Channel 10, told viewers to get ready for a very strong northwest wind followed by violent thundershowers and a marked drop in temperature accompanying a cold front within the next couple of hours.

Mr. Garrett was talking about a swath of Edwards Plateau prairie on the shirt tail end of Tornado Alley, an area of the world that is known to generate winds strong enough to buckle metal silos, rip barns and industrial plants to pieces, and level thick walls made of stone and brick.

The 1947 disaster developed when fire broke out in a cargo hold of the SS Grandcamp, laden with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate in paper sacks. Longshoremen tried to put the fire out with extinguishers and fire hoses, to no avail.

The longshoremen reported that the sacks already laden were hot to the touch as the cranes lowered more pallet loads of ammonium nitrate into the hold. Orange smoke was pouring from between a bulkhead that divided the interior of the cargo hold from the outer skin of the vessel.

Finally, the captain of Grandcamp, a former U.S. Liberty ship then registered to a French navigation company, ordered the holds sealed and steam pumped into the watertight compartments in an effort to control and extinguish the blaze, which burned with a bright orange smoke much admired by people in the area, who stood in their yards and along the roadside as they watched in fascination, much the way the victims did at West.
When the explosion came, the violent chemical reaction soon spread to the SS High Flyer, similarly laden with 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, and the resulting chain reaction spread to a fuel barge moored in the slip, to oil storage tanks at a nearby refinery, to the Union Carbide installation, and the Monsanto Chemical Co.

Windows shattered in Galveston, 20 miles across the bay. The ground shook and buildings rattled in Houston, 40 miles away. The blast was so violent it hurled a 2-ton anchor from Grandcamp 1.62 miles, where it landed in a 10-foot crater. A massive bronze propeller from High Flyer flew through the air to its resting place one mile distant.

Like the ships laden with ammonium nitrate, the storage area at the fertilizer company was without automatic fire prevention equipment in the form of a sprinkler system, according to meticulous records kept by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. As in the post-war era, ammonium nitrate is heavily regulated as both a hazardous material and an agricultural fertilizer used on subsidized crops such as cotton, maize and corn.

But none of what is surely to follow came under discussion at ceremonies held at 2 pm yesterday, Thursday, April 25, at Baylor University.
County Judge Scott Felton and Sheriff Parnell McNamara

Mercifully, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, made no appearance to admonish and remonstrate with the world about how God hates homosexuals and the policies of the U.S. Armed Forces toward the proclivities of certain people who do not necessarily agree with the mainstream interpretation of God's will when it comes to sex. The actual bearing of their complaints on the funeral services of fallen soldiers has never been explained.

It is a great mystery, punctuated by the obnoxious behavior of the church's members, who travel great distances to demonstrate their displeasure.

Sheriff Parnell McNamara took personal responsibility in a televised press conference. He confronted the activists with the dire warning that they would be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law,” should they do anything to mar the tranquility of the funerals of “our heros.”

He was in attendance at the Baylor memorial service, surrounded by constitutional officers from McLennan County government. He was not wearing his signature silver belly Stetson.

Secret Service Agents stand in 'vectored' posture, scanning 10,000 people for danger signs of violence

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