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

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 17, 2014 4:48 PM

By Lisa Maria Garza

WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Still healing from multiple broken bones after the force of a deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant lifted him out of his boots a year ago, one first responder has begun to address the anguish of losing his team members.

Volunteer firefighter Robert Payne said there were challenges that went far beyond physical rehabilitation in recovering from the April 17, 2013, blast that killed 15 people, most of them first responders.

"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 Payne, who is missing a few teeth and suffers nerve damage to his right shoulder.

In many ways, the tiny, central Texas city of West looks much like it did before the fertilizer plant explosion leveled the surrounding neighborhood and injured 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 are 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.

Texas Governor Rick Perry said late Wednesday that the state will award West an additional $4.8 million to repair the city's infrastructure, including water treatment and storage, on top of the $3.2 million in disaster relief already received.

"Last year's tragedy touched the lives of every member of the West community, and touched the hearts of all Texans," Perry said in a statement. "These recovery funds will help the people of West rebuild their lives and invest in the future of their community."

The source of the explosion was ammonium nitrate stored in a wooden container at the plant, investigators said, but they have yet to identify what caused 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.

West Mayor Tommy Muska favors building a new fertilizer plant to boost his town's sagging economy, and said on Thursday the hard lessons learned from the tragedy should serve as a blueprint for a safer design.

"If others can learn something from this, learn about ammonium nitrate and how it should be stored, then those first responders didn't give their lives in vain," Muska said.

A full day of memorial ceremonies on Thursday concludes with an evening prayer vigil expected to draw 3,000 people. There will be a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m. local time (8.51 p.m. ET Friday) to mark the exact time of the explosion.

"It's an extremely hard day for the people in this town, a lot of memories are coming back. Those guys were our friends before they were firefighters," Muska said.

The blast obliterated an entire neighborhood - including a nursing home and high school - on the north side of the town, where the plant had been operating for more than 50 years. But the healing is well under way with a new nursing home and high school under construction.

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.

Even as the structural repairs continue - 70 homes have been rebuilt from the ground up, another 180 homes have been repaired - the community is still struggling emotionally, Mayor Muska told an afternoon press conference.

"There's a lot of strong people here but they went through a very traumatic experience so that's probably the next big hurdle we're going to hit," Muska said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Bernadette Baum and Gunna Dickson)