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West, Texas dental office remains closed following explosion

April 19, 2013

By Kelly Soderlund

West, Texas—Gray smoke billowed over the town as Dr. Larry Sparks made his way home Wednesday night.

West is a community of around 2,800 people about 20 miles north of Waco and sits higher than the land around it, so Dr. Sparks said he could see most of the town as he drove in after 7:30 p.m.

“If you've ever seen pictures of a dustbowl, that's what it looked like, except it was gray,” Dr. Sparks said in a phone interview Friday. “All of a sudden, it turned from gray to a red and orange mushroom fireball. It looked like the mushroom cloud you see when you look at pictures of an atomic bomb exploding. It filled the entire horizon.”

That fireball came from a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, the force of which sent a shockwave through the town, blowing the windows and roofs off buildings and homes and demolishing others. There have been conflicting reports as to the amount of people killed, but 12 bodies were recovered from the plant Friday and about 200 were injured, according to news reports.

Dr. Sparks, who was not injured, said he instinctually braced for the shockwave but didn't feel it. Others who were outside during the blast told him they were knocked down from the force.

Dr. Sparks and his wife's house is eight blocks from the fertilizer plant, and he said the blast blew out all of their windows, shattering glass all over the house, and blew their French-style glass front doors to smithereens. His wife was outside in their yard when the blast occurred and was not injured.

Dr. Sparks is the only dentist in West, and his practice sits on Main Street, about a half mile from the fertilizer plant. He thinks some larger buildings around it shielded his dental practice from the blast, but it still knocked down his internal light fixtures and buckled his suspended ceiling.

“My office was kind of an afterthought. I have very few problems compared to what the vast majority of people in town have,” Dr. Sparks said. “Some places look like you just took the house and swept it off the foundation. Others look like they just crumbled into themselves.”

When asked if he knew anybody who was killed in the blast, Dr. Sparks quietly replied, “Yes,” but did not want to elaborate.

“It's a small town and you basically know everybody,” Dr. Sparks said earlier in the interview.

After the explosion, Dr. Sparks said people congregated downtown, watching the fire and speculating about what caused it. After about 20 minutes, he said law enforcement told the crowd to evacuate; they were afraid a second tank of anhydrous ammonia, which is blended at the plant, would explode. The winds were heavy that day, Dr. Sparks said, and the smoke, debris and fumes were blowing north.

“When we got out of town, after a few minutes you could smell that strong ammonia smell in the air,” Dr. Sparks said.

Dr. Sparks and his wife haven't been able to return to their house since the explosion; they're staying with his sister, who lives about five miles west of them. He has been back to his practice to assess the damage, but since the water in that part of West has been cut off, Dr. Sparks can't see patients yet. Some of the town is under a boil water advisory and some are without water entirely, he said.

Dr. Sparks is a member of the West Independent School District board, which had an emergency meeting Thursday night. Only one of the four school buildings in West is functional, he said, with one being completely destroyed.

For now, they wait. The school board waits until it can physically get inside the schools to determine the extent of the damage. Dr. Sparks and his wife wait to return to their home and figure out what needs to be repaired. And he waits for clean water to return to his dental practice so he can begin seeing patients again.