Officials allow some West residents to return home - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

Officials allow some West, TX, residents to return home

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Sgt. Jason Reyes said 14 bodies have been recovered around the fertilizer plant after a large explosion Wednesday. (Source: CNN) Sgt. Jason Reyes said 14 bodies have been recovered around the fertilizer plant after a large explosion Wednesday. (Source: CNN)
The explosion destroyed 50 houses near the plant in a path of destruction of about five blocks. (Source: DFW Scanner) The explosion destroyed 50 houses near the plant in a path of destruction of about five blocks. (Source: DFW Scanner)
Aerial video shows the scope of the destruction from the TX fertilizer plant explosion. (Source: CNN) Aerial video shows the scope of the destruction from the TX fertilizer plant explosion. (Source: CNN)

WEST, TX (RNN) - People in this small town can finally begin the process of returning their lives to normal.

The city's top official made it clear that when residents began moving back into their homes, they would not be hindered by the threat of an environmental hazard.

"I want to dispel any rumors of any health, or safety hazards, or threats at this time in the city of West. It is safe, it is safe and it is safe," West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek emphasized.

During a press conference Saturday, Vanek announced the first group of residents can return to West, despite rumors the town is still unsafe. He did not say when all evacuated residents would be allowed to return.

As investigators move inward in examining debris and damage, residents gradually will be allowed to return to homes along streets that have already been examined.

About half the population in the town was evacuated, including a nursing home with more than 130 residents.

Vanek went on to say the city is enforcing a curfew due to health and safety reasons. The first group of displaced residents returning to their homes are encouraged to be out of the impact area by 7 p.m. Saturday or to remain inside of their homes without leaving throughout the night.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal's office are working to try to determine the cause of the blast.

A dozen investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were also inspecting the site Friday.

A minor incident before the announcement may have fueled misgivings about returning to the area less than three full days after a fertilizer plant fire and explosion killed 14 people and injured 200 others.

Earlier Saturday, small fires on the site of the fertilizer plant explosion kept authorities from lifting blockades, according to the Associated Press. 

Officials told AP the fires were caused by tanks that were leaking gas on the site and that they were being contained.

Efforts to recover

President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration for West, and Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area.

The president's declaration gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency the authority to "identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. Emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding."

"I've pledged that the people of West will have the resources they need to rebuild," the president, speaking from the White House, said Friday.

Law enforcement officials said they will continue to search through the debris for more bodies.

About 60 people were unaccounted for after the explosion, but McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said late Friday that most, if not all of them, have or will be located.

"I would be surprised if it's more than a few people (who are missing)," Felton said.

West police Chief James Lawhorn said on Friday five of the dead were West volunteer firefighters, and four were EMS personnel.

Twelve individuals were recovered from the fertilizer plant explosion Friday morning. Two more were found Friday afternoon.

"The deceased have been taken to the Dallas Forensic Lab for proper identification," Sgt. Jason Reyes said.

Reyes said the fire and blast also destroyed 50 homes.

"I just toured the site, both from the air and from the ground, and frankly, the observation along the area around the site is just total devastation," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said.

A four-block radius around the fertilizer plant is almost completely leveled. Three fire trucks and one ambulance were destroyed.

The bodies were found in and around the plant area. Officials will not confirm if the bodies recovered are firefighters, emergency workers, plant workers or regular citizens.

During a press conference on Sunday, officials said a combined memorial service for the first responders will be held Thursday at 2 p.m.

Still searching for bodies

Search and rescue crews sifted through the still-smoldering remains for survivors throughout the day Friday.

"At this point they are in the continuation mode of search and rescue, which to me means that they are still going out and looking for survivors of the blast from Wednesday evening," Sgt. Patrick Swanton said.

Investigators said there is nothing so far to suggest anything other than an accident, but they can't rule anything out.

"The explosion happened in a highly populated neighborhood, it is a volatile situation because it being a fertilizer company, it has the component ammonia nitrate which is a volatile product," McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said.

Republican U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Rep. Roger Williams, R-Weatherford, were in West on Friday afternoon to offer support to residents.

Cornyn said they viewed the tangled wreckage of one of the fire trucks destroyed in the explosion.

"In this close community, I grieve with the injured and the family and friends who have lost loved ones," Cornyn said. "After seeing the site firsthand, I know the road to recovery will be long, but I am encouraged by the many examples I have already seen of this town's resilience."

Abbott said Thursday "it's way premature" to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.

Almost like a natural disaster

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the force of the explosion through the air was greater than a 2.1 earthquake.

The fire call came in at 7:29 p.m. CDT, Swanton said. The explosion was reported at 7:53 p.m.

"On my way in I saw homes that were burning, homes that had significant devastation, bricks were torn off," Swanton said. "It was almost tornadic in effect."

A YouTube video has surfaced of a man recording the explosion moments before it occurs. The video may be disturbing for some.

As the events unfolded, people in the area went online to report what was happening. One man posted a photo on Instagram of a giant black cloud that resulted from the explosion.

Kristen Crow, a reporter for the Tribune-Herald tweeted a photo of a triage on a football field. The field was later evacuated and the triage relocated.

Fuel to the fire

Officials say they have located the seed of the explosion, and there were no burning fires on the scene as of Sunday.

The plant contains anhydrous ammonia used in the production of fertilizer, the fumes of which are dangerous to breathe.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Because of the risk of poison, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality personnel were posted within a quarter-mile of the facility at the request of emergency personnel for safety reasons.

The Associated Press reported West Fertilizer was investigated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 after receiving a complaint of a small ammonia smell.

The town of West has a population of around 3,000 people. It is approximately 19 miles north of Waco, the city where cult leader David Koresh led a 50-day standoff against the FBI that ended in more than 80 deaths on April 19, 1993.

Two years after Waco, on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was destroyed with a bomb that used fertilizer, killing 168.

And in what could be a tragic coincidence, Tuesday's disaster occurred the day after the anniversary of a similar fertilizer explosion in Texas City, TX, which took place on April 16, 1947.

The official death toll of that explosion was 581, making it the deadliest industrial accident in American history.

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