WEST, Texas — Two days after the explosion at a fertilizer plant sliced by a busy railroad and highway in the Central Texas town of West, the death toll rose to 14, but with the search of damaged structures nearly finished by Friday afternoon, only a few people were still missing, local and county officials said.
Earlier, after he had toured the site, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said 60 people remained unaccounted for, an estimate that included many people who had been reported missing by relatives unable to locate them immediately after the blast. But Judge Scott Felton of McLennan County, who joined Gov. Rick Perry at an afternoon news conference, said he would be “surprised if it’s more than a few.”
Perry said there was “absolute devastation” in the area around the West Fertilizer and Chemical plant, adding, “It’s going to be a long recovery.”
Through the night and much of the day, authorities removed bodies from the rubble, most of them of firefighters and other emergency responders who were the first to arrive at the plant. One of them was Capt. Kenny Harris of the Dallas Fire-Rescue department, a married father of three who had been off-duty when he learned of the fire and went to help, a spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue said.
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Sgt. Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety said about 200 people were injured and at least 50 homes were damaged by the explosion, which was caused by a fire inside the plant late Wednesday. The plant is surrounded by houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, three schools and a nursing home.
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other federal agencies swarmed the remains of the plant Friday. They focused on two reinforced steel tanks that stored anhydrous ammonia, an inexpensive liquid fertilizer commonly used across rural America. Under some conditions, it can turn into flammable gas.
Last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Administration fined the plant, a retail and warehouse facility for grains and fertilizer, $10,000 for safety violations, citing inadequate markings on the tanks and deficient transportation plans for the fertilizer. Farmers hauled it away from the plant in tanks pegged to the backs of their pickup trucks. The fine was settled for $5,250, according to agency records.
“The experts don’t know what happened, and I am going to leave it to the experts,” the plant’s foreman, Jerry Sinkale, said Friday.
Outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where volunteers grilled ribs and sausages for the rescuers, Dr. George Smith recalled how the flames brightened the darkening sky over the plant, which is near his house and across from the nursing home where he was medical director. All but one of the 127 nursing-home residents survived the fire and explosion, aided in their escape by friends, relatives, strangers and rescue workers.
A broadcast to police scanners, which many residents have in their homes, said, “Anybody who can, please, go help at the rest home,” recalled Dorothy Warren, 63, who tried to get to the scene. She was stopped at one of the roadblocks that quickly sprouted, she said. The roadblocks remained Friday afternoon.
Smith said nursing-home workers had a well-rehearsed evacuation plan in case of a fire at the plant. The only death was of a man “who was very sick,” Smith said.
Throughout the town on Friday, residents held on to any good news, like the story of a woman who saw a neighbor she had presumed dead walk through the doors of the town’s post office.
Many people displaced by the explosion took shelter not at the community center, where cots had been set up, but at the homes of friends and family who still had roofs over their heads.
At Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4819, donated clothing was organized on tables set against the walls of a room lined with cots where some rescue workers had slept. It was there that many of the nursing home’s residents ended up late Wednesday.
West lost three of its four school buildings in the explosion, which also damaged about 20 school buses, the entire fleet. On Friday, trucks lined up outside the one surviving campus, West Elementary School, bringing in portable classrooms, chairs and supplies. Classes are expected to resume Monday.
“Evil visited with us Wednesday night, but the good Lord was with us too,” Larry Hykel, president of the West Independent School District board of trustees, said in an interview. “We will rise from the ashes.”