(Reuters) - A black wreath hangs on the door of the brick City Hall in West, Texas, which was closed Thursday and Friday so workers could attend funerals for some of the 14 people killed in the fertilizer plant explosion last week.
One block south, at the volunteer fire department, well-wishers have set up an impromptu shrine with flowers, wreaths, a wooden cross and a concrete statue of a firefighter. Eleven of the dead were emergency responders.
Before April 17, most Americans had never heard of the small, heavily Catholic city about 20 miles north of Waco, with Czech bakeries, farms and a population of 2,700. That changed on the night a fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Co gutted an apartment complex, battered a nursing home and left 200 people with burns and broken bones.
Before the catastrophe, West paramedic Bryce Reed and others would always say they were from “West comma Texas” to avoid confusion with the western part of Texas.
“Now, you don’t have to do that anymore, and that sucks,” said Reed, 31, whose best friend, a volunteer firefighter, died in the blast.
In the last week and a half, local residents have honored their dead, found classrooms for children whose schools were damaged and begun returning to homes that had been evacuated. President Barack Obama visited to express his support.
On Saturday, residents were allowed for the first time to visit their homes in the most heavily damaged part of town. City Hall is expected to reopen on Monday.
Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the explosion at the plant, where hazardous materials such as dry ammonium nitrate and liquid anhydrous ammonia were stored.
Resident Mandy Williams said that - as she ran down her street hearing the screams of her neighbors - two doors down, she encountered a woman who was missing part of her leg.
“It was blown off below the knee,” Williams recalled. “I got it from another yard, brought it back to her, and put it down beside her. The whole time I‘m just calling 911, trying to get through.”
The tragedy brought out the best of West.
The town, named for prominent businessman and landowner Thomas M. West, started attracting Czech and German immigrants in 1900 because of the railroad, according to the Handbook of Texas Online, which is published by the Texas State Historical Association. Downtown still reflects West’s Czech heritage with businesses such as Nors Sausage and Burger House and Olde Czech Corner.
Many of those who lost their homes were taken in by friends and family and given food and clothing by local churches, whose clergy urged their congregations to pray for the town.
Many residents did not blame the plant owner, lifelong West resident and octogenarian Donald Adair, who has stayed out of the public eye but issued a statement vowing to cooperate with the investigation. The fertilizer plant was important to farmers who grow corn, wheat, milo and cotton in the area. It was a place where they gathered for coffee and a chat.
“You don’t prepare for a fertilizer plant to blow up,” said Brian Uptmor, whose brother, William “Buck” Uptmor, was among the dead. Brian Uptmor said his brother had gone to try to rescue horses from a pasture near the plant.
Adair bought the plant in 2004 when it was threatened with closure, and local farmers said they appreciated him doing so because it meant they did not have to drive long distances for fertilizer and other supplies.
But a few residents expressed concern whether the plant was being properly supervised. They said that after Adair bought West Fertilizer, he focused his attention on his farming operation, leaving General Manager Ted Uptmore, now 80, and other staff in place. Cody Dragoo, a plant employee as well as a volunteer firefighter, died in the blast.
As time goes on and lawsuits against Adair mount up, it is clear that not everyone has sympathy for the owner. The plant was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a risk management plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Among those suing are Bridgett and Roger Bowles. Their lawyer, Jason Gibson, said the roof of their house was lifted up and then slammed back down in the explosion. As a result, he said, Bridgett Bowles suffered a broken jaw, a concussion and a blown out eardrum.
“Most of the residents there were unsuspecting of what was going on right underneath their nose,” Gibson said. “They don’t know what’s going on inside that plant. They assume it’s a nice couple that owns it and they’re operating it the way they should, and that wasn’t the case.”
“It was a preventable tragedy that was not prevented, and it should have been,” he added.
Two of the lawsuits filed so far have accused Adair Grain Inc, parent company of West Fertilizer Co, of negligence.
The Insurance Council of Texas, which represents property insurers in the state, said insured losses from the explosion should reach at least $100 million, with 140 homes and an as yet unknown number of cars destroyed. Many victims were not insured, however, and the council said at least 180 families have sought financial assistance from the Red Cross.
A number of downtown businesses also suffered losses such as shattered windows and damaged roofs.
Last Sunday, City Council member Steve Vanek opened a community meeting with a prayer and assured residents they would stick together.
“We will stand by you until the last nail is driven,” he said. “This may be months; this may be several years.”
The devastation was in part overshadowed in the national media by the search for the suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. But at a memorial service on Thursday in Waco, Obama told more than 9,000 mourners: “Know this, for the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here through times of tribulation.”
Emergency vehicles arrived from across Texas for the service honoring the dead firefighters, during which a bell sounded as each victim’s name was read out loud. Volunteer firefighter Joey Pustejovsky was remembered for his dimple and his love of fried chicken.
“I’ll always put a (chicken) leg aside for you,” his grandmother said at the service.
Billy Lewis, a directional driller at an oil field who had driven to the wreckage of an apartment complex to try to free people trapped inside, is among the many locals who are sure the fire department and town will rebuild and be okay.
“Everybody’s strong here, man,” Lewis said. “It will bring people closer if anything.”
Writing by Corrie MacLaggan. Additional reporting by Karen Brooks, Jim Forsyth, Lisa Maria Garza, Laura Heinauer, Carey Gillam and Ben Berkowitz. Editing by Gunna Dickson