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9 Volunteer Fire Fighters and 1 Off-Duty Career Fire Captain Killed by an Ammonium Nitrate Explosion at a Fertilizer Plant Fire – Texas

FF ShieldDeath in the Line of Duty…A summary of a NIOSH fire fighter fatality investigation

F2013-11 Date Released: November 12, 2014

Revised on January 20, 2015 to address comments from the Institute of Makers of Explosives to remove potentially confusing references to “incipient” fires and to add reference to IME’s ammonium nitrate best practice guidelines.

Executive Summary

On April 17, 2013, ten emergency first responders (ranging in age from 26 to 52 and all male) were killed when a burning fertilizer plant containing an estimated 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded just outside the city limits. The explosion occurred less than 20 minutes after the emergency responders arrived on-scene. The victims included 5 volunteer fire fighters with the city’s volunteer fire department, and 4 volunteer fire fighters from 3 neighboring volunteer fire departments who were attending an emergency medical services (EMS) class in the city. One off-duty career fire captain and two civilians who responded to offer assistance to the volunteer fire department were also killed by the explosion. The victims were among a number of first responders engaged in fire suppression and support activities and were in close proximity to the burning structure when the explosion occurred. Five other volunteer fire fighters with the city’s fire department were injured. The two civilians were providing non-suppression support to the fire department when they were killed by the blast. Three civilians living nearby also died as the result of the blast.

Contributing Factors

  • Non-recognition of the hazards associated with ammonium nitrate
  • Limited pre-incident planning of commercial facility
  • Fire quickly spread to an un-controllable size
  • Approximately 40-60 tons of solid ammonium nitrate unexpectedly detonated
  • Responders working within blast radius at time of explosion
  • Large non-sprinklered, wood construction, commercial structure.

Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments should conduct pre-incident planning inspections of buildings within their jurisdiction to facilitate development of safe fireground strategies and tactics, especially for high hazard / high risk structures and occupancies
  • Fire departments should have a written risk management plan, use risk management principles at all structure fires and especially at incidents involving high risk hazards
  • Fire departments should develop, implement and enforce a written Incident Management System to be followed at all emergency incident operations
  • Fire departments should ensure that fire fighters wear a full array of turnout clothing and personal protective equipment appropriate for the assigned tasks
  • Fire departments should ensure that fire fighters are trained to standards that meet or exceed NFPA 1001 Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications.

Additionally, governing agencies (federal, state, regional, and local municipalities) should:

  • Consider requiring automatic sprinkler systems, performing regular fire inspections, and other types of active fire prevention methods in industrial facilities, especially those with high risk / high hazard inventory
  • Consider following the most current safe handling procedures for ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage and handling.

Read the full report

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an institute within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. In 1998, Congress appropriated funds to NIOSH to conduct a fire fighter initiative that resulted in the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program which examines line-of-duty-deaths or on duty deaths of fire fighters to assist fire departments, fire fighters, the fire service and others to prevent similar fire fighter deaths in the future. The agency does not enforce compliance with State or Federal occupational safety and health standards and does not determine fault or assign blame. Participation of fire departments and individuals in NIOSH investigations is voluntary. Under its program, NIOSH investigators interview persons with knowledge of the incident who agree to be interviewed and review available records to develop a description of the conditions and circumstances leading to the death(s). Interviewees are not asked to sign sworn statements and interviews are not recorded. The agency’s reports do not name the victim, the fire department or those interviewed. The NIOSH report’s summary of the conditions and circumstances surrounding the fatality is intended to provide context to the agency’s recommendations and is not intended to be definitive for purposes of determining any claim or benefit.

For further information, visit the program Web site at or call toll free 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636).