"Fox," from the series Smoke from Another Fire (2004) by Jody Fausett
By the morning of April 18, 2013, the news crews were already swarming West, Texas. The evening before, volunteer firefighters had rushed to the fertilizer plant on the north edge of town to put out a fire in a janitor's closet. Within minutes of their arrival, the combination of fire, water, and ammonium nitrate caused an explosion so strong that it registered as a small earthquake. A young girl standing on her front porch watched as her yard lifted and shuddered; the metal walls of the West ambulance station flapped like an injured bird. The two-story plant was gone, and in its place was a rubble-filled crater nearly 100 feet across. Hunks of concrete and steel, remnants of surrounding buildings, were scattered over thirty-seven blocks of residential neighborhoods surrounding the plant. The explosion killed fifteen people; twelve of them were firefighters and medics.
As news of the disaster spread that night, nurses and therapists and Red Cross volunteers from Waco and Clifton and Bellmead hurried to West to assist; the Army showed up, as did agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—and, of course, the newscasters. The visitors stayed in West's only hotel—a Best Western across the highway from the main part of town—with West residents who had nowhere else to go. The explosion leveled a good part of the north side, and dozens of families were prevented from returning to their houses, in case their roofs caved in.
One of the few people willing to give interviews in the hours and days after the explosion—willing, in fact, to give them over and over again—was a young man named Bryce Reed. He served as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in West, which gave him the authority to speak from the very center of the tragedy. And the newscasters were lucky to have him for other reasons: Reed is handsome and broad-shouldered, with a kind of folksy Texas eloquence. When he told about that night and the following days, his expressive face registered grief, shock, anger, and disbelief at what had happened to him and his town. He also had the kind of dramatic story that makes reporters drool: he let a Los Angeles Times reporter watch him prepare to inform another firefighter's family that their son was dead, and told CNN that he'd seen dozens of dead bodies at the site. During an Anderson Cooper 360 feature, Cooper asked Reed if his home had been damaged in the blast. It was gone, Reed said emphatically. Gone.
On April 25, Bryce Reed gave a eulogy for his friend and fellow firefighter Cyrus Reed during a memorial at which President Obama also spoke. Bryce stood at the podium in his West EMS uniform and shared stories of Cy's fondness for fire and his mischievous habit of shooting cans of processed cheese with a BB gun. "Picture, if you will, waking up in the morning to find a fifteen-foot-diameter swath of compressed dairy product strung all over the backyard—fence, chairs, window, and sometimes the dog," Bryce said, grinning. Then his mood turned somber: "My brother would disagree, but I firmly believe that all privy to this incident can attest that my brother, and all those who lay with him, are heroes now and forever," he said. "I would like you all to learn from my brother." The Dallas Morning News described the eulogy as "rousing." Only later did someone realize that part of it appeared to have been plagiarized.
The names of some Texas towns seem dreamed up to amuse tired drivers: Noodle, Blanket, China, Pandora, Oatmeal, Kermit. The town of West is, illogically, in Central Texas. In West, that comma is precious: "We love this town/and we fear God/and we all love our mommas/Welcome to West, Texas/Welcome to the comma," crooned Joel Wood, a singer from West, in a song he uploaded to YouTube a week after the explosion.
After the blast, a half dozen of my friends back east, uninitiated in the arcana of Texas geography, sent me worried texts. I am a West Texas volunteer firefighter, but the town I live in is about 500 miles west of West. These texts bothered me not because of the geographic ignorance they showed, but because they reminded me of my own ineffectiveness. I was a firefighter who had never put out a fire.
When I joined the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department in September 2012, everyone warned me that the real fire season wouldn't start until the spring, when lightning storms would ignite the tall grasses that had been freeze-dried by the high-desert winter. The Marfa VFD had battled several of Texas's biggest fires, including the previous year's Rockhouse Fire, which burned more than 300,000 acres and threatened the town of Marfa until the winds changed.
But spring 2013 turned out to be one of the calmest seasons on record, and being a volunteer firefighter mostly meant making small talk about zoning at department meetings. I wore my Marfa VFD hat as I entered reports, baked cookies for the Christmas party, stood in the middle of the road waving a giant orange flag while a tow truck latched on to a car that had been, but was no longer, on fire. I did get to come home with my hair smelling like smoke once, when I helped battle ten-foot-tall flames shooting out of a propane tank—but our fire instructor had ignited the tank on purpose, so that didn't really feel like it counted.
"It's the quietest I've ever seen it," Marfa's fire chief, Gary Mitschke, drawled during one of our weekly meetings. Everyone grumbled that he was jinxing us—now it wouldn't be quiet anymore. We'd get toned out in the middle of the night for ranchland grassfires, for hay bales engulfed in flames, for smashed-up cars with their engines on fire. But part of me wanted something to burn. Say it again, Gary, I thought, guiltily. Call that fire into being.
In the weeks after the explosion, much of West was declared off-limits. People who lived within the blast's immediate vicinity, in Zone 3, weren't allowed to go back to their homes to fetch clothing or medication. Residents were advised to boil water before drinking it, in case of contamination. Food slowly rotted in powerless refrigerators. Still, the town seemed strangely full. There were the groups who'd come to help—the Red Cross, Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery, the Salvation Army—as well as the local, state, and federal law enforcement officers tasked with figuring out who to blame. At one point there were seventy ATF agents working on a potential crime scene that spanned fifteen acres.
Reed took advantage of the fact that anyone wearing a uniform could move around West a bit more freely. When the town's doctor, George Smith, complained that he couldn't get prescription pads and equipment from his office, Reed flashed his credentials at the checkpoint and smuggled Smith into the restricted zone. He dressed a television producer in firefighter's bunker gear and snuck him into ground zero. He stood weeping in his uniform at the site of the explosion. Eventually, the ATF told Reed that if he was spotted north of Oak Street again, he'd be arrested on the spot.
Meanwhile, Reed's media appearances weren't sitting well with everyone. "I guess he was looking for his fifteen minutes of glory," West mayor Tommy Musaka said later. "I want people to know they are not brothers, and he is not part of our family," Cyrus Reed's sister, Sarah, told reporters. "We want no link between our family and Bryce Reed; he took advantage of our family during an already overwhelming time with the loss of my brother." A few nights after the explosion, Bryce Reed's estranged wife, Brittany, called the cops, claiming he'd pulled a gun on her, and he was voluntarily admitted to Waco Crisis Care Center.
Rumors began to circulate about Reed: he was embezzling from the EMS pension fund; he was using the explosion to get famous; he was selling his hero story to the news stations for money. And he was into explosives. People started avoiding eye contact when they passed him on the street. He became convinced that the ATF was tapping his phone. His Facebook posts were increasingly frantic: "I have not received ONE DIME from anything related to my presence on medica, and I am appalled at how people are tearing me apart. I am not crazy, I'm lost. This is INSANE! If you dont have nothing nice to say, please I emplore you to take my name out of your vocabulary and not speak ill. I am broken inside and out and cant take this. God Bless."
In early May, a few weeks after the explosion, Reed pulled into the parking lot of Bush's Chicken to meet a friend. "Who's that in the SUV?" she asked him. "They followed you over here." Just then, ATF officers in blue nylon jackets swarmed Reed's car. An agent handcuffed him and informed him that he was under arrest.
The agents drove Reed to the blast site. As they stared at the place where his friends and colleagues had died—now just a bulldozed lot, a giant and obvious vacancy—one of them began to interrogate him. "Why did you build that bomb?" he demanded. "Why did you set that fire in the plant?" "Fuck you," Reed said. "That's bullshit." The agents drove Reed to his house and sat him, handcuffed, on the front steps for all the neighborhood to see while they searched his house for three hours. That same day, the bureau announced that they were opening a criminal investigation into the origins of the blast.
After Bryce Reed was arrested, the same news programs that had featured him as a hero aired segments that showed him in a completely different light. Anderson Cooper, who had bonded with Reed over stories of his own brother's death, broadcast a shot of Reed's house—the one he'd said was "gone." It looked nice enough to feature in a real estate ad. The Dallas Morning News examined Reed's LinkedIn profile and reported that it included false degrees and suspicious management positions at defunct companies. "He may not have been what he appeared to be," the article's author noted ominously. Reed was "on leave from one job, fired from another," a somber news announcer intoned. The New York Times reported that Reed's arrest had not yet officially been linked to the blast, then spent seven paragraphs detailing how he had acted out after the explosion.
The ATF seized Reed's laptops, iPad, and iPhone, and found that a few months before the plant blew up, his search terms included "explosives," "explosive ingredients," and "instructions for making explosives." Around that same time, he placed online orders for sulfur powder, red iron oxide, potassium perchlorate, magnesium ribbon, ammonium perchlorate, charcoal air float powder, and potassium nitrate—chemicals often used in amateur explosive devices. Meanwhile, in the McLennan County jail, it seemed as though everyone knew about the charges against Reed. "What's up, Unabomber?" he recalls the guards taunting him. Reed was placed in solitary confinement ("because they were fucking with me"), where he remained for the duration of his stay at McLennan.
When I stopped by the West fire station in late September, there was a handwritten sign taped to the front door: NO PRESS. I tried the door anyway; it was locked. I put on my Marfa VFD hat, hoping it might give me some kind of credibility as I lingered around the fire station in direct violation of posted signs. Eventually, a kind-faced man directed me to a nearby trailer, which he told me was serving as West EMS's temporary headquarters while the new station was under construction. I peered through one of its windows and saw Tom Marek, the longtime director of West EMS, slumped in a plush recliner in front of a flickering TV. I knocked, but there was no response, so I knocked again. Nothing. I cracked the door, but he didn't move. "Hi, Tom?" I said. Marek looked completely zonked out, his head tipped back and his mouth drooping open beneath a bristly mustache. "Tom?" I said, louder. He didn't move. I wondered if he was dead, and then I wondered if he was faking—maybe this was his version of passive resistance to press intrusion. He looked like a parody of a man asleep. I stood there for a minute, maybe two, wondering whether it was appropriate to touch his arm. I decided that it was not. Finally, I got in my car and drove back to Waco, where I had dinner alone in a mediocre Thai restaurant and thought about heroes. "It's my birthday," I told the server, who looked at me like she thought I might be lying.
When I went back to the trailer the next day, Marek answered my knock right away. "Oh, I had allergy shots yesterday, and they really knock me out," he said amiably. "Come on in." When I asked him about the explosion, he recounted his story in a calm, procedural way, as if he had told it many times before. Partway through his account, Mike Reed, West EMS's assistant chief, stepped into the trailer. "She already talked to Bryce," Marek said. Mike sighed. I asked the two men if they thought Bryce had any role in the fire or the subsequent explosion. "No, no," Mike said, as if the very idea embarrassed him. "Absolutely not." No one in West thought that anymore.
It wasn't long before the hysteria that led up to Reed's arrest began to seem overblown. Toward the end of July, the Texas Rangers presented the District Attorney with their report on Reed and the explosion. "Based on the review I have completed thus far, I have seen no evidence linking him to the fire and subsequent explosion," McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna admitted. "There was no evidence that Bryce Reed had any connection to . . . the fire," said Crisanto Perez, the ATF agent in charge of the investigation. Reed had spent the day at home arguing with Brittany after picking her up from the Dallas airport (she'd just gotten kicked out of a Palm Beach rehab center), not creeping around, setting fires. But by that point the news cycle had moved on. There had been dozens of articles and TV spots about Reed's heroism, and even more about his arrest, but few outlets paid much attention to his exoneration.
Bryce Reed was born in southern Illinois, but spent most of his childhood in Rockwall, Texas, an affluent community a few miles east of Dallas. His mother worked as a nurse and a risk management officer at a local hospital, and his father was an operations controller on an oil pipeline. "The stress level at that job is just below air traffic controller, you know?" Reed says. "So those guys are wound pretty tight."
Reed grew up in a house with a pool and a twenty-foot flagpole decked out in spotlights, so the Stars and Stripes could fly all night without violating flag etiquette. Though the house is nice, it's nowhere near as swanky as many of the mansions that line the lake here in Texas's fourth-wealthiest county. At Rockwall High School, Reed felt invisible. "The average height for guys there is like 6-foot-2," he says. Girls from his graduating class went on to appear on The Bachelor and For Love or Money. "There are some that are Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, a couple are Maverick Dancers, a couple have been in Playboy," Reed says. "Rockwall is like the Beverly Hills of Texas."
For Reed, academic life wasn't any better than the social scene. Though his intelligence is obvious—he told me that he thought his IQ had been measured at 140 or 150, which would make him smarter than about 99.9 percent of the population—Reed didn't find his classes particularly interesting. He preferred volunteering in the hospital where his mother worked, which he started doing when he was a kid. "My nickname was Doogie," Reed says. "They let me draw blood, take blood pressure, help with minor surgeries, do procedures—I had no business being in the ER doing what I was doing—and I enjoyed it."
Reed remembers one day in particular, when he was around nine. "There was a hyper-critical patient, and I saw doctors and nurses I really respected sweating bullets," he wrote in an e-mail. "About fifteen minutes after we first started treating this lady, the staff was frantic. Nothing was working and she was crumping. [Then,] like something out of a movie, you could hear the faint sounds of rotor blades coming in to the pad. As soon as the flight medic and nurse got to the ER, it was like the seas parted and they just owned this patient. I watched doctors, nurses, and Allied Health staff just breathe this big sigh of relief when they walked in. They saved that lady, and from that day forward that is exactly what I wanted to do."
Reed has a quick mind, a deep desire to help people, a touch of ADHD, and a minor case of grandiosity, all qualities that served him well as a paramedic. Often first responders are better at making split-second decisions than following through, and they may be easily bored or have trouble respecting authority. They may walk with a hint of swagger, but it's hard to blame them; they're the ones who have to charge toward the kinds of things—shootings, car crashes, the elderly falling down—most people run away from.
Little of the job, however, involves glory. As a first responder, you're a grief mop, a trauma janitor, a sickness sponge—you're the guy who shows up on the worst day of someone else's life. And when you're saving someone's life, the odds are good they're going to yell at or vomit on you. You'd think the job would get you laid, at least—everyone likes a uniform, right? But that seems to work better for firefighters, with their big trucks and fire poles. When you're a medic, civilians ask you for stories and then say "EW, STOP" when you tell them that a freshly exposed human skull isn't shiny, but actually resembles the flat off-white of institutional wall paint. Usually, for around $11 an hour ($13 if you're a paramedic), you're just wiping the shit off a drunk's legs before you bring him in to the ER, or asking a wheezing woman if she remembered to take her meds. During slow days you do a lot of sitting around, hoping for a chance to be heroic. "We'd get to talking about how we'd really like to do a call," Peter Canning writes in his memoir Paramedic. "EMTs would joke about throwing ice water on the back steps of churches in the winter. Driving up behind senior citizens and blasting the air horn. Giving alcohol to minors. Stringing razor wire across the minibike trails. Anything for a call."
But for some people, that potent combination of anxiety, boredom, adrenaline, self-righteousness, pride, and disgust is addictive; after one ride on the box, they can't imagine doing any other kind of work ever again. When you've touched vital organs, the idea of sitting in an office—or even taking patients' blood pressure in a nice, sterile hospital room—sounds wussy and dull. I'm a paramedic—what's your super power? reads one popular EMT t-shirt. Another: TRAUMA JUNKIE: It's not that we want you to get hurt . . . We just want to be there when you do!
Reed started EMT classes the year after he graduated from high school, in 2001, and worked as a first responder in various capacities until just before the explosion. In 2003, when Mike Reed was having a hard time getting West volunteer EMTs to agree to be on the schedule, Bryce Reed spent forty-one consecutive days on 24-hour call, sleeping at the station to prove a point. "I didn't have a kid, I didn't have any bills," he says. "I wanted to show them: You live in this town, and you can't take eight hours of call? I don't even live here! If I can do it, you can find eight hours."
Over the next few years, Reed continued to volunteer in West while also working for ambulance services in Rockwall County and Waco. Deciding to become a career first responder means signing up to witness terrible events. In 2007, Reed says he ran upon more fatalities than everyone else in the West ambulance service combined—around seventy, he estimates. He saw kids mangled in car accidents and perfectly healthy-looking people keel over right in front of him. "I got the nickname 'The Reaper,'" he says. "Every day people would be like, Are you sharpening your sickle? Who are you going to kill today?"
Only in recent years has the first responder community begun to seriously consider the consequences of repetitive emotional strain on rescue workers, who tend to have more alcohol-related problems and higher rates of depression than the general public. While debriefs are encouraged after particularly gnarly incidents, this isn't generally a culture that embraces feeling sharing. "In the first-responder world, there's no doubt that PTSD is rampant," paramedic Michael Ferrara, founder of the First Responder Recovery Project, told Outside magazine. "The more I've gotten into this, the more people I've found who had it. It's an iceberg—we're just seeing the tip."
The first time Reed almost lost it was in 2010, when he was working on an air ambulance crew for Southwest MedEvac in El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico. Reed had dreamed of flying ever since he saw those hero medics save the day in the ER when he was nine. Flight medics are the A-team of the EMS world; they helicopter in to victims of accidents who require faster transport to the hospital than a ground ambulance can manage. Or if a patient is too injured or ill for a particular hospital to handle, the air ambulance will provide transport to a higher-level facility, along with in-flight care. "They're 911's 911," as Reed puts it. Flight medics get more money—but the stakes are higher, too. While working at Southwest MedEvac, Reed got diagnosed with ADHD. His new meds helped him focus, but kept him awake, so he started taking meds for sleep, too. Pretty soon the combination of drugs and stress took its toll. At one point, Reed says, he ground his teeth in his sleep so hard that all of his back teeth broke. He took a leave of absence from the service. While he was off, a helicopter with Reed's boss and two of his colleagues flubbed its landing during a training exercise on a clear February night; everyone onboard was killed. "After that I kinda lost it—well, I wouldn't say I lost it," Reed says. "When something happens like that, you can't function. You're just there. You can't snap out of it is the best way I can describe it."
It took a few years for Reed and his wife to get back on their feet, but by the beginning of 2013, some things, at least, were looking up. Reed had landed his dream job, working as a paramedic on a flight crew serving the Children's Medical Center of Dallas. Not only was he in the sky again, but he was helping save kids—on behalf of one of the nation's highest-ranked children's hospitals, no less—instead of dealing with addicts and old people. Reed, Brittany, and their toddler daughter settled into a three-bedroom brick duplex in West. Reed was still volunteering with West EMS a few times a week, and working on music projects in his small studio whenever he had downtime. "I've traveled the globe, and that's the only place that ever made sense to me. It was like Mayberry," he recalls, grinning. "I loved that town."
The night of April 17, when the tones went off and dispatch announced the small fire at the plant, Reed didn't want to respond. Tired from arguing with Brittany, he was hoping for a quiet night. But Brittany wanted to see the fire, so they hopped in the car and drove north.
When they arrived on scene, the fire was growing, and firefighters were already starting to suffer from smoke inhalation. Two EMS volunteers, noticing the thickening smoke, instructed the EMS student they'd brought with them to evacuate, but he stayed with the firefighters instead. Seconds after the medics made it back to the fire truck, the explosion ripped the plant—and the truck—apart. Both medics survived. The student and most of the others present did not.
Mike Reed was driving toward the fire when his car shook from the force of the blast. "I heard them say firefighter down, and that was the last radio traffic I heard," he says, because the department's repeater was destroyed in the blast. To Bryce Reed, the explosion felt like "the angel of death passing overhead." He rushed home, threw on his bunker gear, and headed back toward the plant. The town looked like a war zone, with busted windows and caved-in roofs and debris littering the street. "I got to the end of the block and I thought, I need to call somebody, somebody needs to come help," he says. "And then there's that moment when you realize you're that guy."
Near the station, Reed tracked down the only one of West's three ambulances that was still functioning. As Reed recalls it, the EMT basic who was driving told him that Mike Reed and Tom Marek were dead. That meant that he was the highest patch on scene, Reed realized—and that the disaster was his responsibility. Later, it was Reed's repeated references to himself as "incident commander" that seemed to rankle his co-workers, especially Tom and Mike, the most. Though the radio the local crews used to talk to one another had been destroyed in the blast, a little fiddling revealed that the long-distance frequency was still operational. Panicked, Reed radioed dispatch in Waco and asked them to send every emergency vehicle between Dallas and Austin. "Can you repeat your traffic?" the confused dispatcher replied. "I do not have time to fucking explain. Just start sending me ambulances and fire trucks and the Army. I don't care. I have two hundred dead. Start sending helicopters until I tell you to quit," he recalls saying. "And they did. We ran out of places to put them." Reed wasn't the only one overestimating the extent of the damage that night; initially, West EMS medical director Dr. George Smith reported sixty to seventy casualties and at least one hundred injuries. The insistent whine of PASS devices—the emergency beacons firefighters wear to help alert rescuers to their location in case of trouble—set everybody on edge.
Meanwhile, Marek was busy setting up an incident command center and figuring out the best way to deploy the various rescue workers, sheriff's deputies, and locals with first-aid training who'd come to help. The high school football field, with its bright lights and wide-open expanse, served as the triage center. The streets near the plant were so cluttered with chunks of destroyed buildings that any rescue vehicle trying to get through got torn up; injured nursing home residents had to be evacuated by hand. Despite the chaos and the communication difficulties—the EMS radios stayed down for most of the night—people found a way to work together. City officials directed traffic, while Mike Reed helped coordinate the transportation of 133 nursing home residents to the community center across town. No one got much sleep that night.
"You train your whole career to [take command during a disaster], but you never think you're going to have to," Bryce Reed says incredulously. "Especially in West-comma-Texas. People don't even know about my hometown, and suddenly I'm in the middle of something that's got worldwide attention." Now that no one in West really thinks Reed blew up the plant, it's this tendency to place himself at the center of the tragedy that rubs people the wrong way. "Bryce feels he did everything that night," Marek says. "We always take the approach that I is not in our equation. It's we. We're a team. Everything we do is a team effort. We had not only West EMS, but a ton of outside agencies that played a big role in helping with the rescue efforts. Everyone from sheriff's deputies to DPS officers to retired nurses—West EMS can't even take credit for the 350-some patients who were treated."
In a way, Bryce Reed's self-aggrandizing is a natural human reaction; don't we all take the starring role in the tragedies of our own lives? First responders, it seems, are supposed to be different. They're supposed to function quietly, to serve as the muscled presence in the background of news footage, lifting stretchers into ambulances, never feeling—or showing—any pain themselves. If they are messy, or arrogant, or strange, we turn against them with a quickness that belies our reverence.
When people who are supposed to protect the public from harm do make it in front of the cameras, their behavior is often measured against how we believe a hero should behave. On July 27, 1996, a plump security guard with a precisely maintained mustache noticed a suspicious package in Atlanta's Olympic Park. As he worked to clear the area, the bomb inside the package went off, killing one spectator and wounding more than a hundred. For a moment, Richard Jewell got to be a hero. Then the story shifted: within a week, Jewell was named as a suspect. News reports began to describe him as "excitable" and "weird." Law enforcement personnel should be dedicated to their jobs, but Jewell was too dedicated. At the Olympic Park, he worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week, and didn't want to take any days off. "If anything happens during the Olympics, I want to be in the middle of it," Jewell had reportedly told friends. All the awkwardness of Jewell's life—the fact that he lived with his mother, his habit of writing "epic police reports for minor infractions," as one former boss reported—was marshaled as evidence against him.
After three months of intense scrutiny by the FBI and the national media, Jewell was cleared of any role in the bombing. But nobody could undo the public dissection of his personality, or Jay Leno calling him the "Una-doofus," or the newspaper writers describing his "thick body," as if his weight was somehow cause for suspicion. Despite apologies from public figures, including Attorney General Janet Reno and Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, Jewell never fully recovered from the media onslaught he described as being "like a piranha on a bleeding cow." He was found dead on the floor of his bedroom in 2007 at the age of forty-four.
A therapist at the Waco Crisis Care Center gave me a dozen laminated cards to take back to my colleagues at the Marfa Fire Department. They're pocket-sized, with a pocket-sized message: The most resilient workers are those that know how to turn their feelings off when they go on duty, but on again when they go off duty. This is not denial; it is a coping strategy. It is a way they get maximum protection while working (feelings switched off) and maximum support while resting (feelings switched on).
The problem with the West disaster was that there was no way for responders to neatly divide their experience into on- and off-duty, so as to flick their emotions off and on accordingly. The victims were their friends and colleagues, the destroyed buildings their homes and workplaces. "There was an initial freak-out when Tom told me that Cyrus had gotten killed," Mike Reed says, his voice as steady as ever. "I kind of lost my mind a little bit."
When the ATF showed up the night of the blast, they immediately began treating the explosion as a possible criminal incident and the blast site as a crime scene, though chemical leaks at the plant made the site unsafe and delayed the investigation. First responders were not allowed to retrieve the bodies of their friends and neighbors for more than 48 hours, but it's West EMS policy—and first responder policy in general—to leave no one behind, so Tom Marek sat in an ambulance, watching over the bodies for hours. The criminal investigation also meant that the West responders couldn't gather together to debrief what had happened until ATF agents interviewed everyone individually, a process that took more than a week. It was the largest investigation ever launched in the history of the ATF's national response team. Later, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board accused the ATF of obstructing its investigation during this period by preventing it from conducting its own interviews.
In the interim, Bryce Reed decamped to a room at the Best Western, where he stayed up late, drinking Blanton's Kentucky bourbon ("three fingers neat") until he passed out. Before the explosion, he'd taken a leave of absence from his job at Children's to deal with his crumbling marriage. Now, his house was too damaged to return to, his friend was dead, and his town was a disaster zone. Despite Anderson Cooper's skepticism, Reed's home required several major repairs, including a new roof, before it was declared safe to enter. In interviews from this period, Reed seems coherent but agitated, like he's running in too high a gear. "I could tell he just needed to get out of there, and we said Bryce, let's go. He just wouldn't," Reed's mother, Therese Nelson, says. "I almost stopped an interview, he was getting real dramatic—he was angry about the blast, angry at what the ATF was doing, angry that they had allowed that many chemicals to be stored and put people in danger. He didn't need to be doing interviews. You know your kid, and he just—he was so tired, his little face was so drawn. It was awful." Then Brittany left him, this time for good. Reed's friends could see that he wasn't coping well, but he ignored their suggestions that he find someone to talk to. "It's like I was standing on the moon and looked down and saw the earth explode. And you're asking me how that feels?" Reed says. "I just—I have nothing to say."
Although Reed now concedes that he was "a little bit crazy" back then, he doesn't regret his vocal criticisms of the ATF. He points to a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board accusing the ATF of intimidation and delay tactics during the West investigation as evidence that he was in the right. And he still sees his media blitz as a kind of service to the town. "You're talking $200 million in damage," he says. (The actual estimate is more like $100 million.) "Somebody has got to pay for that. I was calling out everybody I could. I was asking questions . . . Who sold them these chemicals? You've got a huge chemical company that really doesn't give a damn. And West is in the middle of nowhere—where else is like this? I just want to make sure no one else has to go through what I have been through." In June, the city of West brought a lawsuit against CF Fertilizer, one of the plant's main suppliers, for "blindly [selling] hundreds of tons of hazardous ammonium nitrate . . . to a facility located within a community of people, houses, parks, schools and a nursing home."
"It's not only Bryce [who had problems]," Marek says. "We've got several others, though not to that magnitude. Had everybody been able to get that peer support diffusion debriefing, I think it would've been helpful. Instead of letting them . . . letting their minds wander."
When Mike Reed and Cyrus Reed hung out, they restored old cars; when Cyrus and Bryce hung out, they blew things up. Cyrus was a jolly guy who, by all accounts, wouldn't hurt a fly—but his uncle worked in a pyrotechnics plant, and Cyrus had a lifelong fascination with explosions, and a federal permit to boot. The Christmas before the explosion, Bryce had ordered all those chemicals online for Cyrus and him to play with. The plan was to make a ridiculous display for a friend's Fourth of July party—mostly small-scale flash pots, with a self-igniting bonfire as the grand finale. Because Bryce had never been all that handy, Cyrus was in charge of the actual fabrication.
But when Cyrus died in the explosion, his federal license became null and void—and the box of chemicals was in Bryce's garage. In an impromptu eulogy for Cyrus, Brittany mentioned that he and Bryce had enjoyed blowing stuff up in the back yard. The ATF agents standing in the back of the room took notice. Things spiraled out of control from there. In a panic, Reed asked a friend—the guy who was planning the 4th of July party—to help him get rid of the pyrotechnic supplies. Unfortunately for him, the friend had already contacted the ATF and was wearing a wire; the conversation amounted to obstruction of justice, the second charge Reed faced in his indictment.
"I understand that they thought I was a suspect," Reed told me some six months after his arrest. "I sounded crazy because I was crazy. But you don't ruin somebody's life over speculation. You don't completely crucify someone like this. Terrorists go to federal prison. Hijackers go to federal prison. Rednecks that make pyrotechnics—not so much, you know? I've got two traffic tickets—that's the extent of my criminal history. I've never been arrested. And then at my detention hearing, the prosecution says, He's a violent criminal." The pipe bomb that's so emphatically referred to in the indictment is three inches long, the size of a magic marker. When I asked ATF special agent Franceska Perot about it, she called it "an improvised explosive device," a phrase more commonly associated with Iraqi car bombs.
West is a complicated place: it's a cozy town of kolaches and Czech folk dancing, but it's also plagued with the kinds of problems that trouble small towns across the country. The plant that exploded had previously been the target of enterprising meth cookers, who tried to tap its supply of anhydrous ammonia. Paramedics self-conscious about their beer bellies joked about going on "the West diet" and taking up a meth habit. A longtime West resident who asked to remain nameless had nothing but scorn for the tight-knit community: "West? They're a bunch of racists. They're hillbillies. They're goons. They all marry each other." That's not quite right, of course. But the closeness that sustained West after the tragedy does have its downside—it can feel like banishment when you're on the wrong side of the line.
A hundred miles outside West, somewhere in the dull flat middle of Texas, I stopped to get gas. The woman behind the cash register wanted to talk to me about motorcycle accidents she'd seen, all the different ways that people's bodies had ended up distended or abraded or mangled or ripped. At first I thought the moral of her story was not to ride motorcycles, but then she began telling me about the people who'd been hit while they were standing on the sidewalk, minding their own business. "You don't know what's going to happen," she said as I was walking out the door. "You can just be driving your kids to school one day and then—"
When I finally made it to Rockwall, in October, the sun had just finished setting, leaving a slow fading blush in the western sky. Reed's parents' house still had the giant flagpole, and a motorcycle was parked on the front lawn with a FOR SALE sign taped to its shiny frame. It was the night before Reed was scheduled to report to the Waco Federal Courthouse to enter his plea—guilty if he decided to accept the government's plea bargain offer, and not guilty if he opted to take the case to trial. Reed sat in his family's living room, eating Chinese food out of a paper carton as his mother and stepfather urged him not to take the plea. The document the government had prepared said Reed had "intentionally, knowingly, and willingly" conspired to make a pipe bomb. Signing it would amount to telling a lie under oath, his mother insisted. That just wasn't right.
But Reed was thinking in more practical terms. He knew that, statistically speaking, the odds were not in his favor: in 2012, only two federal defendants in Texas's Western District went to trial and were found not guilty. The vast majority of all federal criminal cases are decided by plea bargain these days, but in the Western District—one of the nation's busiest—it's noteworthy that 99 percent of cases never go to trial. "In the U.S. plea bargaining system, many federal prosecutors strong-arm defendants by offering them shorter prison terms if they plead guilty, and threatening them if they go to trial with sentences that, in the words of Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York, can be 'so excessively severe, they take your breath away,'" a recent Human Rights Watch report noted. If Reed pleaded guilty, it would be to lesser crimes (conspiracy to make a destructive device and attempt to obstruct justice), which carried a maximum penalty of ten years—and presumably, the judge would give him far less time, around twelve to fifteen months. But if he insisted on going to trial, the DA would bring charges that could amount to twenty-five years in prison.
The next day, in the bright afternoon light of the Waco Courthouse, Reed pleaded guilty to both charges. His stepfather, Gary Nelson, a former Marine, told a local news reporter that he planned to take down the flagpole in front of the house. "I am ashamed of our government," Nelson said. "I feel like I've lived a very sheltered life, because I had no idea what they do. I don't know how I'm going to come to terms with that."
The way Reed sees it, everyone in West was incredibly angry after the explosion. In another kind of place, that rage might have sparked a movement to change the state's regulatory climate—but not in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry denied that increased regulations and enforcement would have prevented the West tragedy, and promised business leaders they didn't need to fear increased restrictions as a result of the blast. Perhaps it's just more satisfying to direct our blame at a particular person, with a particular face, than at an abstract set of laws and policies. "I can see no way for anything to go wrong unless it was intentional," Robert Payne, co-owner of a fertilizer plant in neighboring Bosque County, told the Associated Press. "I don't see how a regulation would make anything any safer."
After entering his plea, Reed returned to his parents' house until it was time to start his sentence. His mother couldn't stop thinking about the week before the explosion, when she drove down to West to visit Reed and his daughter. She knew her son was having a hard time in his marriage, and she urged him to bring his daughter to Rockwall to live at home for a little while, to relieve some of the pressure. "He said, 'Mom, look at this place. You don't find places like this in America. This is a real community. It's where I want to live, it's where I want to raise my daughter.'" Reed hasn't been back to West since his arrest; he doesn't expect he'll ever return there again.
On good days, Reed daydreams about starting a ministry and using his own story to inspire other people who find themselves in dark places. The word he likes to use when describing the government's treatment of him—"crucify"—is telling. Part of him always thought he'd die saving lives; this is just a different kind of martyrdom. On bad days, though, Reed wishes he'd been one of the first responders to die that night. When he starts talking like this, I try to tell him it's better that he's alive, that there must be more work for him to do here, that life itself is an unequivocal good, even if it doesn't always feel that way. Secretly, though, I see his point. If he'd died, his story would have been simpler, easier to tell. He would have been fondly remembered as that talkative guy, the one with the radio voice, who'd dedicated himself to saving other people's lives. When his photo appeared on TV, it wouldn't be a mug shot, and the newscasters would use that special, solemn tone they reserve for eulogizing heroes.
I fought my first fire—a trailer fire caused by a propane tank that leaked or broke or otherwise failed—on November 7, a month before U.S. District Judge Walter Smith sentenced Bryce Reed to twenty-one months in federal prison. Our truck was first on scene, and when we arrived, the trailer was still half intact. I remember thinking that the flames looked fictional, computer-generated, even, until I got close enough to hear the very real sound they made. A man in jean shorts and flip-flops, a helpful neighbor perhaps, directed the thin stream of a garden hose at the growing fire.
The trailer was disappearing behind a wall of flames. "It's gone," Paul said, shaking his head. The flames jumped and shimmied. Once we got our hoses on them, the black smoke whitened and began to sink low—except when the fire found something toxic to chew on for a little while; then it thickened, turned a sinister greenish color, put a metallic taste in the back of my throat. "Get out of there," Gary yelled, and we stepped back until it was safe to move forward again. A fire is a system with its own internal logic; a big enough conflagration can make its own weather. So being a firefighter requires a certain humility, a willingness to defer to the fire's reality. But firefighting also demands domination and violence. You have to destroy whatever the flames want to feed on—douse it with water, smash it with an axe, smother it with whatever's handy. The fire is under control when the firefighter is causing more damage than the fire.
It didn't take long to put out the flames. Twenty minutes? Thirty? By that time, the trailer was a husk filled with the charred remains of clothes and books and insulation and boxes of unidentifiable food. There was smoke, still, but no active fire; the neighbor's trailer had been saved, at least. I began to think about the coffee I would drink when we were finished here—something more decadent than usual, a mocha, maybe, or a mocha with whipped cream.
I'm not sure when I finally noticed the short, silent man standing off to the side, appearing not to watch us, or anything else in particular. We moved around him as we cleaned up the scene, flinging the collapsed metal roof out of the way, into the mud that now surrounded the site. It was his trailer, it turned out. He'd been picking tomatoes in a greenhouse a few miles north of town when he heard about the fire. But I only figured that out later. What I had to learn first was that you're not finished fighting a fire once the flames are out. The real work begins when the immediate danger is over. What's underneath stays hot, until you bring it out into the open. Even then, the smoldering lasts for a long time.