WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Hundreds of residents of this close-knit Texas town sought healing at church services on Sunday, as one school was readied to reopen and authorities located the center but not the cause of last week’s deadly fertilizer plant blast.
About 200 people in the town of West - including farmers, military veterans and migrant workers - packed into the Church of the Assumption in the center of the town for Catholic mass early on Sunday.
Father Boniface Onjefu offered prayers for the 14 dead, among them local volunteer firefighters and emergency workers, and the nearly 200 injured in the blast that smashed several blocks of the small town, about 80 miles south of Dallas and less than 20 miles north of Waco.
“Let us be strong and move our beloved city ahead. God is with us,” Onjefu said.
The blaze and ensuing explosion 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 damaged.
A reporter allowed into the evacuated blast zone on Sunday said the roof was torn off the apartment complex. Large chunks of concrete hurled from the plant a couple hundred yards (meters) away littered the complex grounds, and a basketball court was unrecognizable except for the toppled goals, according to a pool report.
The nursing home’s brick exterior was cracked, and the roof had caved in.
“This is like a war zone,” said Brian Hoback, a national response team investigator for U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, among more than 60 federal and state personnel working at the scene.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said a probe had identified a “large crater at the seat” of the blast, but neither the cause nor the location of the fire that preceded it have been determined.
Authorities have said there was no indication of foul play at the plant, which was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a risk management plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials said the death toll remained at 14, although the victims have yet to be officially identified. McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said he did not know of anyone still unaccounted for, despite persistent rumors.
Matt Cawthon, chief deputy sheriff for McLennan County, said two of the dead were near or in the apartment complex. He was unable to give their age or gender.
A male resident from the nursing home died enroute to the hospital after being evacuated, although it appeared his death was not directly caused by the blast, Cawthon said.
Officials announced a memorial service would be held for the first responders in Waco at 2 p.m. CDT (3 p.m. EDT) on Thursday.
Larry Kaska, who lost his home on the north side of town, said the mass led by Onjefu brought “some healing” to residents as they started to rebuild their shattered lives.
“We’re turning ... getting back to some normalcy again,” said Kaska, who is now living at his nephew’s home. “Just hearing his prayers and comfort, and (knowing) that people are being supportive ... help you out.”
But for some at the church service, it was too early to speak of healing. Among them was Silvestre Duran, a Mexican migrant whose wife, Lucy, had suffered flashbacks since being injured as the blast tore through the nursing home where she worked.
Her face was marked by burns, and she had multiple stitches in her right ear. Their daughter, who worked at the nursing home, also was injured in the explosion.
“A lot of people have memories that will be with them for a long time,” Silvestre said.
Another churchgoer, who identified himself only as a farmer who had lived in West all his life, was still struggling to come to terms with the toll on the town.
“I lost three of my best friends ... I should have been maybe there with” them, he said, clearly shaken. “I just consider myself and my family blessed ... If you don’t have faith in the good Lord, you have nothing.”
Editing by Barbara Goldberg, G Crosse and Sandra Maler