Residents await return to Texas homes after deadly blast

WEST, Texas Sat Apr 20, 2013 6:37pm BST

1 of 5. West, Texas emergency medical services personnel comfort colleagues during a service for fallen firefighters held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in West, Texas, April 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jaime R. Carrero

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WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Officials in West, Texas, made plans on Saturday to allow residents to return to their homes in parts of town blocked off since Wednesday night's deadly blast at a local fertilizer plant.

Since the explosion that flattened sections of this town of some 2,700 people, disaster teams have been working to ensure the homes are safe to enter, according to Sergeant Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Authorities on Friday put the death toll at 14 and said 200 people were injured, and Reyes said Saturday morning that those numbers had not changed.

Steve Vanek, a volunteer firefighter and the mayor pro tem, said the town planned to set up a hotline to let residents know when they might be able to return to their homes.

"We are really working very hard … to get it safe and get y'all back to your homes," Vanek told mourners Friday evening at a remembrance service at a Catholic church. "When it is safe, we will contact you to let you know what our plan of attack is."

The fire and ensuing blast at West Fertilizer Co, a privately owned retail facility, left a devastated landscape, gutting a 50-unit apartment complex, demolishing about 50 houses and battering a nursing home and schools. Dozens more homes were reported to have been damaged.

There was no indication of foul play, authorities said Friday.

Carl and Ophelia Downing and their two sons, Colby, 11, and Caden, 9, are among those waiting to return. Their home is inside the evacuated area and the explosion blew some of their windows out and pulled doors off their frames. They are staying at a hotel in Waco.

"We're just waiting and doing what we can to help," said Ophelia Downing, 35. "Taking it day by day."

CONFIRMED DEAD

The majority of the confirmed dead were emergency personnel who responded to the fire and likely were killed by the blast, which was so powerful it registered as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.

Donald Adair, a lifelong resident of West and owner of the plant's parent company, Adair Grain Inc, issued a statement on Friday saying: "My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community."

He added that his company was "working closely with investigative agencies" and pledged "to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community."

The plant was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a Risk Management Plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The company, which has fewer than 10 employees, had provided no contingency plan to the EPA for a major explosion or fire at the site. It told the EPA in 2011 that a typical emergency scenario at the facility that holds anhydrous ammonia could result in a small release in gas form.

The EPA fined the company $2,300 in 2006 for failing to implement a risk management plan.

Last year, the fertilizer plant stored 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as required, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate - which can also be used in bomb making - unaware of any danger there.

FARMERS RELIED ON PLANT

For the farmers who grow corn, wheat, milo and cotton in the area, the fertilizer plant was critical to their operations. Not only did the plant mix fertilizer for farmers - selling it by the ton - and deliver it if needed, but it also had a steady business in sprayers and other equipment for applying the chemicals.

It was a place where farmers gathered for coffee and a chat, and a place where friends and family worked together.

Talk of fines and safety violations at the plant have raised the ire of some who did business there and who do not know now whether to be angry, just sad, or both.

"I know a lot of people are putting the blame on it," Danny Mynar, who farms about 2,000 acres outside West, said of the plant. "But it served a lot of ranchers and farmers."

Mynar's cousin is married to one of the plant operators who is now assumed to be dead. Cody Dragoo mixed the ammonium nitrate at the plant, said Mynar. When the fire started, Dragoo, who also worked as a volunteer firefighter, rushed to help try to put it out. He has not been seen since, said Mynar.

"He was my best friend," Mynar said of Dragoo. "It is just a sad deal."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Corrie MacLaggan; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza, Carey Gillam, Joshua Schneyer, Ryan McNeill, and Janet Roberts; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Vicki Allen and Andre Grenon)

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