WEST, Texas (AP/KXAN) — Residents of a Central Texas town formed a mile-long line Saturday as authorities allowed some of them to return to their homes for the first time since a fertilizer plant exploded, killing 14 people and leveling nearby neighborhoods.
Many people waited for word all day from federal and local authorities on when they would be allowed to survey the damage caused by Wednesday night’s explosion of the West Fertilizer Co.’s plant on the eastern rim of the small town north of Waco.
West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Venek announced State One of the re-entry process for one area about a mile from the plant and be restricted to residents and representatives of insurance companies. He warned residents that they could expect to see a lot of debris, including broken glass, nails and more.
Authorities also say that those families allowed in the blast zone will have limited access to water, electricity and natural gas.
The area for State One re-entry is between Walnut Street on the north and Oak Street on the south .
“It is safe, safe and safe,” Venek said at the afternoon news briefing.
Residents who live in the area that will be open first were instructed to line up in their vehicles on the fringe of the neighborhood. Texas Department of Public Safety troopers will be checking identification of people to make sure only those who live their are allowed in
Because of the heavy damage, their area will only be open from 7a.m. until 7 p.m., Venek said.
Many among West’s 2,800 residents were growing frustrated from not being allowed home since Wednesday night’s explosion that killed at least 14 and injured about 200. Local officials said this morning that they were waiting on clearance from ATF to update residents. The ATF says other agencies also are working the site.
Residents moved ahead with what they could — a contractor to rebuild, a funeral home to arrange a service — but continued to wait for authorities to let them back in their neighborhoods and release the remains of the dead.
Bill Killough, 76, paced the lobby of a local hotel Friday, planning how to make the most of whatever time authorities grant him to visit his house 2 ½ blocks from the site.
“Once they get through totally going over that fertilizer plant that blew up and they are satisfied that it is no danger to anybody, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to go back to our houses,” said Killough, who used to restore classic cars.
Killough said his handyman could help him grab his guns, wrapping the rifles in blankets while he focused on his wife’s list of items, mostly documents that will be important in the recovery stage.
He briefly was able to sneak back in shortly after the blast and said the damage was bad, but not much worse than when they stripped it back to its frame to renovate a couple years ago. The blast ripped homes, schools and a nursing home within a four- to five-block radius, injuring more than 200.
Killough had talked to a contractor who promised he would be first on his list, but he fretted about how hard it will be to get materials, especially windows, in a town with so many blown out.
The fertilizer facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be injected into soil. It also mixes other fertilizers.
Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he never would forget the “selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us.”
One of the plant employees also was killed responding to the fire, Adair said.
Meanwhile, officials Saturday were telling residents displaced by the massive fertilizer plant explosion in Texas that tanks on site are leaking gas and causing small fires.
They say the fires are contained, but they are preventing those who live nearby from returning to their homes in the town of West.
Federal investigators and the state fire marshal’s office began inspecting the blast site Friday to collect evidence that may point to a cause. Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators still were combing through debris and would continue Saturday.
Meanwhile, Texas Task Force 1 began pulling its heavy equipment and members out of West on Saturday after finishing a search and rescue of a swath of the town decimated by the Wednesday night explosion.
Operations Chief Jeff Saunders says the group is more accustomed to dealing with the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes, not industrial explosions. He says they are preparing equipment to return to College Station.
Saunders says the team completed Friday a search of the plant site and a final sweep of a devastated nearby apartment complex. He declined to say what they saw, citing an ongoing investigation.
Texas Task Force 2 left Friday evening.
Residents cannot return to their homes until investigators are finished, Perot said. She did
not have a timetable on when that might be.
Perry said the “search and rescue phase is now complete” and the “recovery side” had begun.
Asked if additional oversight was needed for fertilizer plants, Perry said “those are legitimate, appropriate questions for us to be asking.”
“If there’s a better way to do this, we want to know about it,” he said.
There is only one funeral home in West and like much of the town Aderhold Funeral Home hasn’t been operating under full power since Wednesday.
Even fully staffed, 14 funerals would overwhelm the staff, but on top of that it’s down a funeral director.
Brothers Robert and Larry Payne share that responsibility. But Robert Payne, who as a volunteer firefighter was on the scene when the explosion occurred, remains in intensive care.
The state and national associations are organizing other funeral homes that have offered to supply staff and vehicles once services are arranged for the dead.
That hadn’t started yet though. Robbie Bates, president elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, said that the medical examiner’s office had not yet released the bodies to the families.
Bates said Aderhold was doing all it could to assist families in the midst of dealing with its own travails.
“They don’t intend to charge the families,” Bates said.
KXAN’S Omar Lewis and Chris Sadeghi contributed to this report from West.
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