By Christopher Sherman
WEST, Texas — The bodies of 12 people have been recovered after an enormous Texas fertilizer plant explosion that demolished surrounding neighborhoods for blocks and left about 200 other people injured, authorities said Friday.
Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said it was “with a heavy heart” that he confirmed 12 bodies had been pulled from the area of the plant explosion in West, about 20 miles north of Waco.
Even before investigators released a confirmed number of fatalities, the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800 and a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the plant to battle a pre-explosion blaze was believed to be among them.
Reyes said he could not confirm Friday how many of those killed were first responders.
Rescue crews spent much of the day after Wednesday night’s blast searching the town for survivors, and Reyes said those efforts were ongoing. He said authorities had searched and cleared 150 buildings by Friday morning and still had another 25 to examine.
The mourning already had begun at a service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church the previous night.
“We know everyone that was there first, in the beginning,” said Christina Rodarte, 46, who has lived in West for 27 years. “There’s no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders, because anytime there’s anything going on, the fire department is right there, all volunteer.”
One victim Rodarte knew and whose name was released was Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived south of West. He was off duty at the time but responded to the fire to help, according to a statement from the city of Dallas.
With search and rescue efforts continuing, it was clear the town’s landscape was going to be changed forever by the four-to-five block radius leveled by the blast. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze, and a nursing home was left in ruins.
Residents were kept out of a large swath of West, where search and rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble. Some with permission made forays closer to the destruction and came back stunned, and it was possible other residents would be allowed to retrieve some personal belongings Friday, emergency workers said.
Garage doors were ripped off homes. Fans hung askew from twisted porches. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all of the building’s windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.
“I had an expectation of what I would see, but what I saw went beyond my expectations in a bad way,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott after his visit. “It is very disturbing to see the site.
Fifteen years ago, Brenda Covey, 46, lived in the now-leveled apartment complex across the street from the plant.
On Thursday, she learned that two men she knew, both volunteer firefighters, had perished. Word of one came from her landlord because they live in the same complex in nearby Hillsboro. The other was the best man at her nephew’s wedding.
“Word gets around quick in a small town,” said Covey, who spent her whole life living in and around West.
Firefighter Darryl Hall, from Thorndale, about 50 miles away from West, was one of the rescue workers helping with the house to house search.
“People’s lives are devastated here. It’s hard to imagine,” Hall said.
The explosion apparently was 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 at Thursday’s church service 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.