Residents return to homes near Texas explosion site but uncertainty reigns

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

WEST, Texas—For the second day in a row, more than 100 displaced residents here lined up to gain access to their homes near the site of Wednesday’s deadly fertilizer explosion that killed 14 and injured at least 200.

City officials began allowing residents in homes farthest away from the center of the blast site late Saturday, but imposed a strict curfew, permitting people to only enter the site between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Residents have the option of staying in their homes if they aren’t heavily damaged, but most of the area remains without power or running water. The explosion leveled a five-square block area of town, destroying dozens of homes, a nursing home and an apartment building adjacent to the plant.

On Sunday morning, a time when most residents would be in church, dozens of cars snaked through town, as residents who didn’t make it inside the blast area on Saturday returned in hopes of seeing their homes for the first time.

“You don’t know what to expect,” said Joanne Nors, who was cooking dinner at her home a few blocks from the plant when the explosion happened on Wednesday night. She and her husband fled their home and have been staying with relatives ever since.

State and local officials have warned residents that the city is unlikely to get back to normal anytime soon. “This is going to be a very long process,” Mayor Tommy Muska said Saturday.

As some residents were allowed back in to see their homes, dozens of insurance companies have descended on the region, setting up mobile offices and handing out business cards along Oak Street, the main drag in West’s downtown district.

Agents also have been spotted at the press conferences held by local officials at City Hall, just two blocks from the cordoned off neighborhood near the fertilizer plant. One agent, who declined to be named, said he was just trying to “gather as much information as I can for my clients.”

Indeed, residents here have grown frustrated with the lack of information from city officials about how long the area will be closed and other basic information. Speaking to constituents Saturday at an impromptu town meeting, Muska, who also lost his home in the blast, apologized and said, “I need to be doing a better job.”

"When you see this place," he added, referring to the explosion site, "you will know a miracle happened."

But residents fear the bureaucracy around the site will only get worse. Yesterday, word spread around town that the site would soon be taken over the by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—something officials in town declined to confirm.

But at the Village Bakery, one of the state's most famous Czech bakeries and a gathering point for West residents, a man announced the FEMA rumor to the entire dining room before making his displeasure clear.

“FEMA is taking over,” the man said. “I don’t like that acronym.”

But there was some good news to emerge from the scene. Steve Vanek, a West City Council member and mayor pro-tem, told reporters most of the 60 people listed as missing on Friday had been found. He said the death toll remains at 14.

Still, that number is a huge blow to a town of less than 3,000 people, where, as one local puts it, “everybody knows everybody.”

On Saturday evening, a group of firefighters from nearby towns gathered on an Interstate 35 overpass and dangled an American flag over the highway as a motorcade of ambulances escorted by police cars passed underneath. The vehicles reportedly were transferring first responders injured in Wednesday’s blast from a Waco hospital to another facility in nearby Hillsboro.

At the same time, someone placed a bouquet of silk flowers on the door of a flower shop downtown, where one resident said the owner had lost her brother and her husband in the explosion. The men had been a part of West’s volunteer fire department.

“We’re just waiting for the funerals to start,” a woman, who declined to be named, said as she stood outside City Hall on Sunday. “That’s going to be real tough.”

State and local officials have said they still have no cause for Wednesday's explosion.