WEST, Texas (AP) — Gas tanks damaged by a massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant are leaking and have triggered small fires that are keeping displaced residents from returning to see what's left of their homes, officials said Saturday.
The initial blast at the West Fertilizer Co. on Wednesday killed 14 people, injured more than 200 others and damaged or completely destroyed at least 80 homes. The new fires at the site are small, have been contained and have not caused any further injuries, said Bryce Reed, a paramedic and spokesman for the town of West.
The news was another setback for evacuated residents who have waited anxiously to return and assess what remains after the blast. Many are hoping to find key documents such as insurance papers and family records to help with recovery. Others simply hope to reclaim any belongings that might be buried under splintered homes.
Reed said there are dozens of portable, white tanks at the site that are typically filled with anhydrous ammonia from larger storage tanks for when farmers request them. The tanks get weak when they are exposed to fire, he said, and bleed.
"The whole place is still on fire, smoldering, all that kind of stuff. It could spark up," Reed told a hotel lobby crammed with residents waiting to get beyond police blockades to their homes. But, he said, "there isn't really enough structure left to light up and burn."
The tanks are attached to plows pulled by tractors and feed streams of the chemical into the ground as the plow passes to fertilize. Reed said they resemble large, horizontal propane tanks, and told residents to imagine a very big hot water heater.
He told residents, "You're safe where you're at. Otherwise I'd be dragging you out of here myself."
Gene Anderson, 64, said Reed's comments would help avoid panic: "He just nipped it in the bud like it should be."
But closer to the site, things were far more tense. Ron Price, a 53-year-old construction worker, said he approached the police barricade Saturday to check on his son's home, which was damaged in the explosion Wednesday night.
Price said he drove his truck up to the roadblock and was trying to get in when state troopers "came flying down the road" from a half block away and told everyone to get back because there was another chance of explosion. People in their backyards outside the barricade were also told to get back, he said.
"It was pretty scary everybody just jumped and took off running," Price said. "They jumped in their cars and we all started heading back."
Displaced residents have been expressing increasing frustration that the area around the blast site has remained off-limits. Among them was Dorothy Sulak, who lost her home and her job.
Sulak worked as a secretary at the fertilizer plant that exploded in a thunderous fireball. She fled so fast she only had time to leave with the clothes on her back. There's a hole in her roof now, and her medicine, cash, even her glasses are somewhere in the rubble.
"Yes, it's just stuff. But it's my stuff," said Sulak, 71, who used reading glasses to see for three days, but finally got a ride to nearby Waco on Saturday to get fitted for new prescription frames.
The blast, which charred a four-to-five block radius extending from the plant, also smashed an apartment building, schools and a nursing home with its incredible force and fire. Sulak said she had been told that her home on North Reagan Street was so close to the explosion site that she may not be able to return until at least Monday.
The death toll remained steady at 14 and federal and state emergency-response teams that had once been searching for survivors had shifted entirely to recovery efforts.
The cause of the blast is still unknown, although authorities have said it appears to be nothing more than an accident. Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators still were combing through debris.
Ernesto Castro works for a local church and has been allowed past the police barricades to feed investigation teams working inside. He said that if authorities determine homes are structurally sound, they've told him they plan to begin letting residents return in in waves, but only to pick up essentials at first.
"There are people raising all kinds of Cain because they can't get back," Castro said. "But it's not safe yet."
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in West, Texas, contributed to this report.