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Emerging From the Rubble in a Texas Town

WEST, Tex. — Two days after the explosion at a fertilizer plant in this
town sliced by a busy railroad and highway in Central Texas, the death
toll rose to 14, but with the search of damaged structures nearly
finished by Friday afternoon, only a few people were still presumed
missing, local and county officials said.       

Earlier in the day, after he had toured the site, Senator John Cornyn of
Texas said that 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 the McLennan County
judge, Scott Felton, who joined Gov. Rick Perry at an afternoon news
conference, said that he would be “surprised if it’s more than a few.” 

Mr. Perry said there was “absolute devastation” in the area around the
fertilizer plant, adding, “It’s going to be a long recovery.” Through
the night and much of the day, the authorities removed bodies from the
rubble, most of them 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, a married father of three who had been
off-duty when he learned of the fire and went there to help, a
spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue said.       

Sgt. Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that
about 200 people were injured and that at least 50 homes were damaged by
the explosion, which was caused by a fire inside the plant on Wednesday
evening. The plant is surrounded by houses, a 50-unit apartment
complex, three schools and a nursing home.       

On Friday, President Obama issued an emergency declaration for Texas,
allowing the state to obtain federal assistance to help pay for the

Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives, the United States Chemical Safety Board and other federal
agencies swarmed the remains of the plant on Friday. They focused on a
pair of 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 United States 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 in an interview on

The investigation, Sergeant Reyes said, will most likely continue for at least several days.       

Outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where volunteers grilled ribs and
sausages for the rescuers, Dr. George N. 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 the 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 who responded.       

A broadcast on the police scanner, 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 make her way to the scene. Ms.
Warren was stopped at one of the roadblocks that quickly sprouted here,
she said. The roadblocks were still in place on Friday afternoon.     

Dr. Smith said nursing home workers had a well-rehearsed evacuation plan
in case of a fire at the plant: they shut off the air-conditioning
system, placed wet towels under doors to keep out the fumes and called
school buses to come pick up the residents.       

“We were thinking of a fire, not an explosion,” said Dr. Smith, who got a
gash on his nose from the debris from the blast. “So we just had to
wing it.”       

He ordered a nurse to get on the intercom and “tell everyone to go to
Station 1,” the section of the nursing home farthest from the burning
plant. He put towels under the front doors while the nurses, at the back
of the building, set up wheelchairs for residents who could not walk.
Then, Dr. Smith and the nurses got the people who came by to help in the
evacuation to serve as escorts, leading the residents to a community
center nearby.       

The only death, of a man “who was very sick,” happened on the way there, Dr. Smith said.       

His eyes welled up and his voice broke as he added, “I find comfort in
the fact that I may have helped saved some lives.”       

Throughout the town on Friday, residents held on to the good news out of
the nursing home — 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, which was open for business and became a sort of joyous
gathering spot.       

Many people displaced by the explosion took shelter not at the community
center, where cots had been set up for them, but at the homes of
friends and family.       

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4819, donated clothing was
organized on tables set against the walls of a room that was also lined
with cots where some rescue workers had slept. It was there that many of
the nursing home’s residents ended up late on 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, of the West Elementary
School, bringing in chairs, portable classrooms and supplies. Classes
are expected to resume on 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.”

Manny Fernandez contributed reporting.


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