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
"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 town 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 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 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 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 (6,800 to 9,000 kg) of TNT, according to
Nearly 2,000 people, dozens wearing red T-shirts with the name of a
volunteer firefighter on the back, gathered in the town's
fairgrounds for an evening prayer vigil that capped off a day of
memorial ceremonies on Thursday.
Some 300 candles were arranged in front of a large screen on which
images of victims were flashed during a moment of silence at 7:51
p.m., marking the time of the explosion.
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"We all hurt and cry at the death of a friend or loved one but the
reason a person hurts so much is because they loved so much," West
Mayor Tommy Muska told the crowd. "The state of West is that the
city will have a new normal, we just don't know what that normal is
going to look like yet."
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is expected to announce results of
its preliminary investigation next week.
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.
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
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 news 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, Eric M. Johnson, Bernadette Baum and
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