By Christopher Sherman,
and Taylor Rexrode,
The bodies of 12 people were recovered Thursday night, just two days after a local fertilizer plant exploded in West, according to a spokesman from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
DPS Sgt. Jason Reyes said in a press conference Friday morning that the bodies will be taken to Dallas for identification. The twelve bodies, found “in the area of the plant,” may not be all the casualties from the blast, he said. Search and rescue operations are ongoing.
Reyes said about 200 people were injured in the blast, which followed a fire at the West Fertilizer Co., which destroyed some buildings and severely damaged some others in in the Czech town of less than 3,000 people.
In response to the number of injuries, Baylor has joined forces with Carter BloodCare to provide students with a way to help West on campus. Students are encouraged to give blood at donation buses located on Fifth Street by the Marrs McLean Gymnasium and Vara Martin Daniel Plaza. Efforts aimed at West relief are ongoing among the Baylor community, many coordinated through social media. Baylor posted two additional volunteer opportunities on its Facebook page today, urging students to wear Baylor T-shirts and unload and sort donations in two locations, the West Fairgrounds, located in West, and the Extraco Events Center, located at 4601 Bosque Blvd in Waco.
The disaster was apparently touched off by a fire, but it remained unclear what sparked the blaze. A team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still had not been able to begin investigating the scene Thursday because it remained unsafe, agency spokeswoman Franceska Perot said.
The West Fertilizer Co. facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be directly injected into soil, and a blender and mixer of other fertilizers.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled.
The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.
In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.
State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it’s not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.
That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit, said the commission’s executive director Zak Covar. He said no other complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there haven’t been additional inspections.
The Rev. Ed Karasek told the hundreds gathered a church service on Thursday that the community needed time to heal.
“I know that every one of us is in shock,” Karasek said. “We don’t know what to think.”
“Our town of West will never be the same, but we will persevere.”
Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Michael Brick, Nomaan Merchant and Angela K. Brown and video journalists John L. Mone and Raquel Maria Dillon in West; writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston and Seth Borenstein and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.