PC fire chief joins others in helping town where fertilizer plant exploded
by David Atchison
PELL CITY – Fire Chief Mike Burdette has seen much devastation in his firefighting career, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw in West, Texas last week.

“In my 25 years of firefighting, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Burdette said.

He said an explosion that measured 2.5 on the Richter scale caused total devastation for the small town near Waco, Texas.

The explosion at the fertilizer plant happened shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing and did not garner as much national spotlight, even though it was more deadly.

“We had two devastating things happen at one time,” Burdette said.

More lives were lost in West than in the Boston Marathon explosions, although the blast in West, Texas was not a terrorist act but an accident.

“Fifteen lives were lost, and 12 of those were first responders,” Burdette said.

He said the blast left a crater 93 feet across and 20 feet deep.

“Death and destruction occurred for six blocks,” Burdette said. “It was leveled, leveled.”

Burdette’s journey to West was sort-of happenstance.

Burdette said it started with reality television star, Tim Smith, who was featured on the Discovery Channel docudrama series “Moonshiner.”

He said Smith, who is a descendant from three generations of moonshiners and bootleggers, is also a volunteer fire chief with the Climax Volunteer Fire Department in Chatham, Va.

Burdette said Smith saw a need to help his fellow firefighters in West and used his notoriety to help solicit money and firefighting equipment donations for the West Volunteer Fire Department.

Burdette said Smith traveled with his department lieutenant Ryan Crews, on a tour bus loaded with firefighting equipment.

When the two men arrived in Georgia, the Douglas County Sheriff said the tour bus wasn’t suited to transport that much equipment and donated a 33-foot U-Haul truck to transport the equipment.

Burdette said the two men left Douglas County and stopped at the Wattsville Volunteer Fire Department.

He said Wattsville Volunteer Fire Chief David Talley called him and asked if the Pell City Fire Department had a place the two men could stay.

Burdette invited them to stay at his home.

After getting to know each other, Burdette started asking who was going to unload all this equipment and help drive?

“Tim asked me, “You want to go with me?”

Burdette called City Manager Patrick Draper and his journey to West was on.

“I took my own vacation time and went with them,” Burdette said.

He said they left April 23. The group made several stops along the way to pick up donations and eventually arrived in West Friday morning, April 26, with more than $280,000 in monetary donations and equipment.

He said the Pell City Fire Department personnel also reached into their pockets and gave donations.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” Burdette said.

Burdette said while there, he served on two funeral honor guards and attended two other funerals.

“It’s going to be a long haul for them to get back to normal,” he said. “The blast impacted their everyday life. You know, our kids are fixing to graduate from Pell City High School, and they don’t even have a high school anymore.”

He said the blast destroyed the newly built high school and more than 200 homes.

Burdette said his week-long trip was worth the effort.

“I feel in my heart, it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Contact David Atchison at datchison@dailyhome.com

© 2013