(Adds comment from mayor at prayer vigil, paragraphs 11-13)
By Lisa Maria Garza
WEST, Texas, April 17 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 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
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
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 federal officials.
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.
"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
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 (28 metres) wide and 10 feet (3 metres) 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 Gunna Dickson)