Last week was a good week to stick your head in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not ostriches so we were left to endure two major tragedies instead: the Boston bombings and an explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas. The former got disproportionate attention, but the latter actually caused more deaths.
Last Monday’s twin bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon murdered three people including a boy, left at least thirteen people with severed limbs, and more than 178 people were treated at local hospitals. It was arguably the first major case of terrorism within the United States since September 11, 2001. For some of us who were in or around the events of 9/11, these bombings evoked visceral reminders of that day. I was one of the people caught in Washington, D.C. that day. My way of coping last week was not to watch videos of this event, but otherwise the news was inescapable. The total deaths were really four if you include the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by gunfire from the bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev early Friday morning. Police killed Tamerlan, the elder brother on Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar is now in hospitalized and in custody after a wild manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding areas for much of Friday.
The visceral reaction to this incident was understandable, given that the Boston Marathon is a huge public event and perhaps the premier running event in the United States. In a sense it was an attack on all of us because it was so indiscriminate. The chaotic reporting of the event did not do credit to the media, social media or crowdsourcing. What was impressive was the effectiveness of law enforcement at city, state and the federal levels. Within three days of the event officials had identified two suspects from thousands of images in and around the event, and within four days one suspect was dead and the other was captured wounded in nearby Watertown after an extensive and scary manhunt that shut down the Boston area. Less noted by the press was what had not occurred in the twelve years in between these events. We know of some of the planned terrorist events that were thwarted by law enforcement over these years, and there are doubtless many more that we do not know about. This incident also demonstrated that when these events occur we can marshal the right resources to effectively manage and contain the event. We have also put in place an infrastructure that is generally effective at preventing most of these incidents. Our law enforcement community deserves applause from all Americans for their forceful and effective response to these tragic bombings. The citizens of Boston proved their resilience as well, by offering assistance to victims of the bombing and by keeping their cool while neighborhoods swarmed with SWAT teams.
Adding to the surreal nature of these events was the rejection by the U.S. senate of expanded background checks for gun purchasers last week. The legislation would not have stopped the bombings themselves, which were wrought by low-tech pressure cookers placed in backpacks. However, had the law been in effect it might have kept the Tsarnaev brothers from acquiring weapons in the first place. During the shootout with police Thursday night, the brothers outgunned the police, at least as far as the number of bullets exchanged. As the nearby Newtown incident demonstrated, it’s not hard to buy lots of bullets in this country. Both brothers were able to acquire guns that were used to kill Officer Collier. Authorities had previously interviewed the elder brother Tamerian because the Russian government believed him to have Chechen sympathies. If they appeared on any watch list, it did not appear to have kept them from getting guns.
While the news from Boston riveted our attention, arguably the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas near Waco on Wednesday was more newsworthy. While it’s unclear if the Boston bombings could have been prevented, the incident in West was eminently preventable and exacerbated by the Texan stubbornness not to allow zoning laws. Currently there are fourteen confirmed deaths and more than 160 people injured, mostly residents of this small Texan town. The town’s volunteer firefighters made up a plurality of those killed. They first successfully evacuated residents from a nearby nursing home before the plant exploded. OSHA had not inspected the plant itself since 1985. The Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to regulate fertilizer factories like this one but depends on these factories to self identify themselves never was notified. The destruction amounted to sixty to 80 homes completely destroyed, including a fifty-unit apartment building. Fifty to 75 additional homes were damaged. The only good thing about the explosion is that a fire started at the plant before it exploded, allowing responders to get the elderly out of a nearby nursing home and residents from neighboring homes before the explosion. It’s hard to imagine what the death toll had been had there been no warning.
This incident is a prime example of a wholly preventable accident. Even if the accident could not have been prevented, zoning laws could have kept industrial areas far away from residential areas, as is common in the vast majority of states except for states with something prickly up their rears, like Texas, who think “freedom” trumps basic public safety. The state of Texas is hostile to zoning regulations of any sort, so it’s perfectly okay to put major industrial plants like this fertilizer storage facility close to residential areas. An incident like this would normally have state legislatures scrambling to enact zoning laws to give jurisdictions authority to put public safety first. This is unlikely to happen, so something like this is bound to happen again.
In fact, it has. Texas, known for its refineries as well as many other hazardous industries, has a sorry history of large and preventable industrial accidents. In 1947, the Texas City Disaster killed at least 581 people and left only one person alive in the city’s fire department. The culprit was a ship loaded with ammonia nitrate, the same stuff that blew up in West Texas, except it was on a ship and 2,300 tons of the stuff went up at once, creating an explosion so powerful it had the force of a nuclear bomb. Also in Texas City in 2005 the Texas City Refinery exploded, killed 15 people and injured 170 others, making it roughly equivalent to this latest incident. If you feel somewhat ghoulish, check out this slide show of large Texan industrial accidents. They will have a familiar ring to them.
Since 9/11 we have done a lot as a country to reduce terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing. We obviously could do more, but we could clearly do a lot more to prevent large-scale industrial accidents such as occurred in West, Texas last week. Like terrorism, it requires putting the public good ahead of private profit and convenience. Let’s hope we learn some new lessons here at least, but like the NRA’s successful effort to get the Senate to turn down legislation for expanded background checks of gun purchasers supported by ninety percent of Americans, it seems that Texans will put stubbornness ahead of public safety once again.
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