"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
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
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.
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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
"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)
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