I was working in Waco, TX researching a death penalty case for a Dutch filmmaker and emailing them from a coffee shop next to I-35 when I noticed that an ambulance was passing every few minutes. I got word there was an explosion in West, so I drove to the town and walked through an exodus of residents and a take over by fire-fighting personnel. They were moving a lot of elderly in and out of ambulances, and there was an overwhelming smell of urine mixing with the chemical in the air at the evacuation site. It was literally a parking lot of fire trucks and EMS vehicles from a 300-mile radius. Helicopters were bringing victims in and people were yelling into cell phones that there was going to be a second blast.
I drove across town as close as I could get to the fire and found a place to park and sleep in my van. The air was toxic — I really began to think about the police, fire-fighting personnel and EMS people who were rushing in without masks. Were they sane, or are some of us just wired to march to our deaths? I was having trouble breathing as I walked down to the fire. I didn’t carry a camera because it didn’t feel right.
I went to bed at two a.m. and woke up at six to a 30-degree drop in temperature and hard rain. I drove around in the evacuated zone — it was filled with EPA, firefighters, police, Texas marshals, game wardens, FBI and power workers. I took a few images of blown out windows and drove back to Waco to try and trade my photos to the Waco Tribune for some information on the death penalty case I was there to research.
The Waco tribune newsroom was overwhelmed. Later, after I had driven back to West and walked around the area, I noticed there was more media than police and victims combined. While stalking a news crew to take a photo, Anderson Cooper walked out of the drug store by himself, dressed like a cattle rancher. I told him that he was much more handsome in person, and asked if I could get a photo.
Soon, everyone on the street was taking photos with him. He was like a Ken doll who smiled and did whatever you needed.
After the shock wore off, I stopped at the West Cattle Auction to photograph the news people. It was almost like the world had ended in West and aliens in make-up had come to photograph and talk about the destruction.
Around 7:30, it seemed like most of the town had gathered at the Catholic church. I worked through a sea of people overflowing the church to listen to the service. The priest mentioned that he had received a message of encouragement from the Pope, and called on the people of West to love one another. There were upwards of 50 TV cameras in the church. I was just as bad, I suppose: I snapped a few shots and left the scene, ashamed for participating.