Waco-McLennan County Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Patterson still remembers the haze hanging over the city of West when he arrived on the night of April 13, 2013 after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. shook the small northern McLennan County city.
“The magnitude of what had happened didn’t hit me until I came in the back way to West and I had a conversation with a (Texas Department of Public Safety) trooper and a parks and wildlife captain,” Patterson said. “I looked around, there was debris everywhere and the haze was still in the air. … Through the haze, I saw flashing lights and injured people were coming out all over the place, and that is when I realized how bad it was.”
Patterson oversaw the response to the explosion that left 15 dead and about 200 injured, one of three disasters declared by the state and six declared by U.S. presidents during a 20-year tenure as emergency management coordinator that will end March 15. Patterson recently announced he will step down to take a job as emergency and risk management coordinator at McLennan Community College.
“I wasn’t looking to leave and I think a lot of my colleagues from even across the state were surprised, but when this position at MCC became available, it just seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Patterson said. “I am going to build on what they have already started and take it to the next level. I am going to take everything I have done here and integrate everything they have at MCC into a large community response preparedness measure.”
MCC spokeswoman Lisa Elliott said Patterson will work with MCC Police Chief Clayton Williams on safety and security. Patterson worked with Williams before Williams retired from the Waco Police Department last year, she said.
Patterson started as the county and city’s emergency management coordinator in 1999 as a one-man department in the basement of City Hall. The office now has three employees and recently relocated to the Emergency Operations Center at 721 N. Fourth St.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said Patterson’s work after the 2013 explosion was indispensable.
“Frank Patterson is my hero,” Muska said. “I took office as mayor in 2011, so I was still a rookie. Frank was our leader during the explosion, and I think he is the reason why our recovery succeeded as quickly as it did and as thoroughly as it did.
“Obviously our citizens have a lot of grit and determination, but Frank really led us from the very beginning.”
Patterson said the explosion in West was a make or break moment in his tenure. He said the scope of his work changed after the 9/11 attacks to include preparation for man-made disasters and biological attacks.
Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said Patterson will be deeply missed and that he has never worked with an emergency management coordinator as strong as Patterson.
“You would have to have two or three Franks to equal one emergency management coordinator in any other city,” Tatum said. “Frank works well with the community, he is a confident professional and he has a lot of institutional knowledge that he will take with him.”