The fertilizer plant in West, Texas, was on fire. When George N. Smith, DO, heard this news, his first instinct as the town’s emergency medical services director was to go to the plant. But he quickly switched gears when he learned the size of the fire. Firefighters and ambulance services were on their way, and he knew the smoke would be toxic, so he headed to a nursing home near the plant instead to make sure its residents were safe.
Dr. Smith coordinated an evacuation of West Rest Haven, located a quarter-mile from the plant. Around 7:50 p.m., after he and the nursing home staff moved most of the patients, they felt the explosion, which caused the building to begin to collapse.
“All of a sudden in a blink of an eye, there was the most massive explosion you could imagine,” he says. “The building literally was on top of me. I don’t know how I got out of there alive.”
Dr. Smith’s role in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, last week was just starting. The explosion left 15 people dead and more than 200 injured. Dr. Smith sustained injuries himself, and his home and office were both severely damaged in the blast.
After the explosion, Dr. Smith went into disaster mode, he says. While the nursing home staff evacuated the seniors, Dr. Smith exited the fallen building and tried calling 911, but couldn’t get a signal on his cellphone. He tried the ambulance radio in his car instead, but he couldn’t get a signal on it, either.
Dr. Smith says he’s worked in many disaster relief efforts, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike, but this was the first time he felt absolutely overwhelmed.
“I didn’t know where my people were,” he says. “I had no way to get a hold of them.”
After trying his cellphone and radio, Dr. Smith raced to the medical air-evac helicopter base near the nursing home.
“Get on your radio, please,” he told a staff member. “Can you dispatch to McLennan County that we’ve had a massive casualty with hundreds of injured and probably many fatalities. Get everything we can down here: fire trucks, haz-mats, everything.”
Dr. Smith left the helicopter base and went to the EMS station to load up oxygen canisters to take them to the evacuated seniors, who were at the community center.
His cellphone still not working, Dr. Smith then walked to a triage station set up on the high school football field to ask the nurses there where the greatest demand was.
“Dr. Smith, you’re no longer Dr. Smith—you’re patient George Smith,” one of the nurses told him.
Covered in abrasions and lacerations on his face, back and legs, Dr. Smith hadn’t had time to think about his own wounds yet.
“I had too much to do,” he says. “I was in shock.”
Dr. Smith quickly left the triage station for the command center, where he was asked to stay and assist an area justice of the peace, who would pronounce the deaths. At that time, they were expecting 60 to 80 bodies.
Stationed at the command center, Dr. Smith took the opportunity to give a few interviews. He talked with the BBC and Piers Morgan on CNN, among others. In the interviews, he still had blood on his face from his wounds.
Dr. Smith speaks with Piers Morgan on CNN after the explosion.
By 4 a.m., on no sleep, Dr. Smith honored a promise he had made to a nurse that he would seek treatment. After getting his wounds sutured at the hospital, he headed to a friend’s house to get some rest. But by then it was 5:15 a.m., and he had agreed to speak to a morning television program, so he headed back out to do the interview.
The chaos of the explosion has passed, but life for Dr. Smith and the other residents of West is far from back to normal. All of the dead were friends of Dr. Smith’s, so he’s been attending funerals and wakes. Because of the damage, it will be some time before Dr. Smith can practice out of his own office. But a friend offered him space in her clinic to use, and he plans to start practicing there in a few weeks. The Texas Osteopathic Medical Association has set up a practice relief fund for Dr. Smith.
In the coming months, Dr. Smith hopes to play an active role in the rebuilding of West. “We’re a town of 2,800,” he says. “We all love each other.”
The citizens of West are lucky Dr. Smith was there to help after the explosion, says Jeffrey D. Rettig, DO, a colleague of Dr. Smith’s who lives in nearby Groesbeck, Texas.
“George is a great person,” says Dr. Rettig, who practices family medicine. “He’s a very good doctor. He’s very committed to his community and his patients, and I think that bore out in this tragedy as well.”
Dr. Smith says it’s a blessing that there weren’t more fatalities and injuries, and that everyone in his family was safe and not seriously injured. When asked for other silver linings from the explosion, he notes wryly that fewer people will mistakenly ask, “Where in West Texas?” when he tells them where he’s from.
“But now, I have a feeling people will know where West, Texas, is,” he says.
Dr. Smith advises other osteopathic physicians who serve in emergency medical services leadership positions to always remember that the unexpected could happen at any time. It’s also important to remind staff that they are serving others, he says.
“Just be prepared to handle whatever will happen,” he says. “Do the best you can to devise plans for disasters such as this. Make sure that your people know what to do if they can’t get a hold of staff and if they can’t get a hold of you.”