Residents honor lost, but Texas blast toll unknown

This aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion and an emergency responders vehicle, bottom left, in West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Rescuers searched the smoking remnants for survivors of Wednesday night's thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris while the community awaited word on the number of dead. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
April 19, 2013 6:45:51 AM PDT
The neighborhood surrounding a Texas fertilizer plant that erupted in a thunderous explosion is gone, and the residents here know they've lost more than the buildings that went up in flames.

Even as investigators were tight-lipped about the number of dead from the blast - authorities say more than 160 are injured but have not yet released a firm death toll - the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800, even if they hadn't been officially released.

Believed to be among them is a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the fire to fight it before the blast. At a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church on Thursday night, the mourning was already starting.

"We know everyone that was there first, in the beginning," said Christina Rodarte, 46, who has lived in West for 27 years. "There's no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders, because anytime there's anything going on, the fire department is right there, all volunteer."

One victim who Rodarte knew and whose name was released was Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived south of West. He was off duty at the time but responded to the fire to help, according to a statement from the city of Dallas.

Authorities spent much of the day after Wednesday night's blast searching the town for survivors. It was not clear why they were having trouble tallying an official death toll. At one point, they said they believed five to 15 people were among the dead, but later backed off giving any firm estimate. Three to five volunteer firefighters were believed to have perished.

Searches continued early Friday morning, and authorities may release more information about the death toll later in the day, said Texas State Trooper D.L. Wilson. "Hopefully," he said.

Even without a full picture of the loss of life, what was becoming clear was that the town's landscape was going to be changed forever by the four-to-five block radius leveled by the blast. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze, and as many as 80 homes were seriously damaged.

Residents were still being kept out of a large swath of West, where search and rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble. Some with permission made forays closer to the destruction and came back stunned, and it was possible that some residents would be let closer to their homes on Friday, emergency workers said.

Garage doors were ripped off homes. Fans hung askew from twisted porches. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all of the building's windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.

"I had an expectation of what I would see, but what I saw went beyond my expectations in a bad way," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott after his visit. "It is very disturbing to see the site."

McLennan County Sheriff Matt Cawthon said the area surrounding the destroyed fertilizer plant is a highly populated neighborhood. He described it as "devastated" and "still very volatile." Ammonium nitrate - commonly used as fertilizer - was found at the scene, but he didn't know if any of the chemical remained.

Fifteen years ago, Brenda Covey, 46, lived in that now leveled apartment complex across the street from the plant.

On Thursday, she learned that two men she knew, both volunteer firefighters, had perished. Word of one came from her landlord because they live in the same complex in nearby Hillsboro. The other was the best man at her nephew's wedding.

"Word gets around quick in a small town," said Covey, who spent her whole life living in and around West.

Firefighter Darryl Hall, from Thorndale, which is about 50 miles away from West, was one of the rescue workers who was going from house to house and checking to see if anybody might have been inside.

"People's lives are devastated here. It's hard to imagine," Hall said.

The Wednesday night blast was apparently touched off by a fire, but it remained unclear what sparked the blaze. A team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still had not been able to begin investigating the scene because it remained unsafe, agency spokeswoman Franceska Perot said.

The West Fertilizer Co. facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be directly injected into soil, and a blender and mixer of other fertilizers.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.

The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.

In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.

State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it's not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.

That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit, said the commission's executive director Zak Covar. He said no other complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there haven't been additional inspections.

At the church service, the Rev. Ed Karasek told the hundreds gathered that it would take time for the community to heal.

"Our hearts are hurting, our hearts are broken," he said. The non-denominational gathering for prayer and song was intended to honor those who rushed toward the danger and those who found themselves too close.

"I know that every one of us is in shock," he said. "We don't know what to think."

"Our town of West will never be the same, but we will persevere."

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