WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Officials began allowing some residents to return to their homes on Saturday for their first look at the damage from a deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer plant.
Authorities set strict rules for those being allowed back inside the evacuated area. Only residents of certain streets were permitted to retrieve their belongings, and a 7 p.m. CDT curfew was set for those who chose to stay overnight.
“If they want to stay, it’s at their own risk,” said Steve Vanek, a West City Council member, who warned of broken nails and glass as potential hazards and a limited access to water and electricity.
The announcement came on a day when officials released few new details about the explosion on Wednesday night that flattened sections of this central Texas town, known locally for its Czech heritage and kolache pastries.
The fire and ensuing blast at West Fertilizer Co, a privately owned retail facility, gutted a 50-unit apartment complex, demolished about 50 houses and battered a nursing home and several schools. Dozens more homes were reported to have been damaged.
Authorities said the death toll remained at 14 in a town of some 2,700 people, with 200 people injured.
Most of the confirmed dead were emergency personnel who responded to the fire and likely were killed by the blast, which was so powerful it registered as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.
Crews were working to restore running water to downtown businesses, and tractor trailers hauled portable classrooms into town for displaced students.
Officials said they were working hard to restore normality, but cautioned the process would take time.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” West Mayor Tommy Muska told several hundred people gathered for a town hall meeting.
“We need to prepare right now for the long haul,” said Muska, whose home was made uninhabitable by the blast.
Authorities have said there was no indication of foul play, although the investigation continues.
Donald Adair, a lifelong resident of West and owner of the plant’s parent company, Adair Grain Inc, issued a statement on Friday saying he was heartbroken about the losses suffered by so many families in the community.
He added his company was “working closely with investigative agencies” and pledged “to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community.”
The plant was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a Risk Management Plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The company, which has fewer than 10 employees, had provided no contingency plan to the EPA for a major explosion or fire at the site. It told the EPA in 2011 that a typical emergency scenario at the facility that holds anhydrous ammonia could result in a small release in gas form.
The EPA fined the company $2,300 in 2006 for failing to implement a risk management plan.
Last year, the fertilizer plant stored 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owned the West plant did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as required, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate - which can also be used in bomb-making - unaware of any danger there.
For the farmers who grow corn, wheat, milo and cotton in the area, the fertilizer plant was critical to their operations. Not only did the plant mix fertilizer for farmers and deliver it if needed, but it had a steady business in sprayers and other equipment for applying the chemicals.
Talk of fines and safety violations at the plant have raised the ire of some who did business there and who do not know now whether to be angry, sad, or both.
“I know a lot of people are putting the blame on it,” Danny Mynar, who farms about 2,000 acres outside West, said of the plant. “But it served a lot of ranchers and farmers.”
Mynar’s cousin is married to one of the plant operators who is now assumed to be dead. The employee, Cody Dragoo, mixed the ammonium nitrate at the plant, said Mynar.
When the fire started, Dragoo, a volunteer firefighter, rushed to try to put it out. He has not been seen since, said Mynar.
“He was my best friend,” Mynar said. “It is just a sad deal.”
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Corrie MacLaggan; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza, Carey Gillam, Tim Gaynor, Joshua Schneyer, Ryan McNeill, and Janet Roberts; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Andre Grenon and Peter Cooney