Signs of healing in Texas town a year after deadly plant blast

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 17, 2014 1:15 AM

By Lisa Maria Garza

WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Still healing from multiple broken bones after the force of the deadly explosion lifted him out of his boots, one volunteer firefighter is missing a few teeth and suffers nerve damage to his right shoulder. Now, a year later, he has begun to address the anguish of losing members of his team.

"Right now I'm just dealing with the mental aspect of it, the emotional aspect, both of those things I've put off until the very end," said firefighter Robert Payne.

In many ways, the tiny, central Texas city of West looks much like it did before a fertilizer plant explosion leveled the surrounding neighborhood on April 17, 2013, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds.

Drivers pull off busy Interstate 35 to stop at the local bakery to pick up kolaches, fruit-filled Czech pastries, and get their gas tanks topped up at filling stations where attendants clean their windshields and engage in casual banter.

But the sounds of drilling and hammering on the residential north side of town and the sight of pickup trucks hauling wood, bricks and sheetrock serve as a reminder that the town is still rebuilding after the blast that killed a dozen first responders racing to contain a blaze that caused an estimated $100 million in damages.

The source of the explosion was ammonium nitrate being stored in a wooden container at the plant, investigators said, but they have not identified the cause of the fire that set it off. The ammonium nitrate detonated with the force of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, according to federal officials.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is expected to announce results of its preliminary investigation next week.

The blast obliterated an entire neighborhood - including the high school and a nursing home - on the north side of the town, where the plant had been operating for more than 50 years.

In the six months following the blast, an estimated 25 residents pulled from the rubble of the West Rest Haven nursing home died after being relocated to nearby facilities in surrounding towns.

"You certainly can't help but think that the explosion contributed to that," said Payne, who is also the nursing home's board president.

The healing is under way in West. A new nursing home is under construction, scheduled to open in summer 2015 and the high school and another school damaged by the blast are being rebuilt with $20 million in federal grants.

At the plant site, surrounded by a chain-link fence and roadside floral tributes and crosses honoring the dead, crews continue to clean and repave the area where the blast created a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

Plant owner Donald Adair, who acquired the business in 2004 when it was threatened with closure, issued a statement soon after the incident, vowing to cooperate with the investigation but has otherwise remained out of the public eye.

Slowly coming forward are residents who need financial assistance to rebuild homes after exhausting insurance payouts, government funding or other options, said Suzanne Hack, director of the Long-Term Recovery Center. The non-profit organization has distributed $1.6 million to more than 350 applicants, has more than 300 cases still open and expects to give out another $2 million by the end of summer.

"It's hard to believe that a year has passed and people are still coming in," Hack said. "Part of the reason is that some are now emotionally ready to get help."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Gunna Dickson)