Baylor journalism faculty interview first responders to create first-person account of the West tragedy


A year after an immense explosion in West, Texas, left death and destruction in its wake, faculty members from the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media in the Baylor College of Arts & Sciences are releasing a book they researched and wrote, describing both the tragedy and heroism of that day.

The Last Alarm: First Responders’ Stories of the West Explosion includes the first-person accounts of more than 40 first responders who served in the aftermath of a fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013, that killed 15 people and injured more than 160 others.

Amber Adamson, a part-time lecturer in journalism, public relations and new media, is the book’s author, while senior journalism lecturer Sharon Bracken served as the book’s editor and publisher. Baylor graduate Stephanie MacVeigh (BA ’99) did the graphic design for the book, which features photos taken by photographers from the Baylor Lariat student newspaper.

A portion of the profits from The Last Alarm will go to a fund that assists first responder families who were hurt or killed in the line of duty.

We talked with author Amber Adamson to find out more about just what it took to create the finished book.


Where did the idea for this book come from? And what motivated you and your colleagues to tell this story?

Both my husband Alex, a member of the Waco Fire Department, and my brother Eric, from the Red Oak Fire Department, are career firefighters — so the idea of doing a book about this profession came naturally.

After the explosion I prayed that I might be able to help in some way, and I felt a strong calling that I should capture some of the stories of the first responders who were in West. The book tells the perspective of the fire and EMS personnel who responded in the minutes, hours and days after the explosion, doing fire suppression, triage, search and rescue and honoring the fallen.

Was it difficult to find first responders who would talk about what they experienced?

It was not difficult at all. In fact, I have pages of more contacts I never got the chance to interview. I ended up interviewing almost 50 first responders from two dozen departments — in McLennan County and at least a half dozen other counties beyond.

I started with firefighters I knew, and I always asked for the names and numbers of others who might be willing to talk to me. As the stories took shape I began to understand what perspectives I needed to have, and I reached out to those people. Almost no one told me no.

The amazing thing to me is that none of the first responders I talked to think that the work they do is extraordinary. They do it out of a sense of calling and duty — not for recognition.

Many were emotional as they recounted their stories, but almost all said they were honored to have been there to help. Events like this remind them of the dangers of their calling — but, if anything, it strengthens their resolve to serve.

What a great privilege it is for me to be entrusted with telling the stories of these first responders.

How did you, Sharon and Stephanie divide up the work required to get this book done?

I conducted the interviews and wrote the book. Sharon has been my content and concepts editor and encourager since day one. Stephanie brought an amazing eye for detail in proofreading and creative genius in layout and design of the book.

What do you hope this book will do for readers, and for the city of West?

It is my desire that the book will be a way of honoring the sacrifices of the 12 first responders who died on April 17, 2013.

I hope that people will realize that the men and women who are first responders, either volunteer or career, regularly put themselves in harm’s way for their communities. But they don’t do it for accolades or pats on the back — they don’t want to be referred to as heroes. They do it because it’s a calling, it’s in their blood. They wouldn’t know what to do otherwise.


In doing her interviews for the book, Adamson worked with Baylor’s Institute for Oral History, which loaned her recording equipment. The interviews with first responders are now being transcribed and will be added to The Texas Collection at Baylor.

A video news story about the book’s publication can be viewed here.

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