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Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

waco-blastFourteen people were killed and more than 150 were hurt in a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. The cause of the blast is still under investigation.

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West, Texas (CNN) — President Barack Obama will join residents of West, a central Texas town still looking for answers, at a memorial service Thursday for the 14 people killed in a fertilizer plant explosion last week.

First lady Michelle Obama will also attend the service at Baylor University in nearby Waco, Texas.

Before leaving Washington, Obama signed a proclamation ordering all flags in the state to be flown at half-staff for the day.

City workers from Waco will replace West workers Thursday so they can attend funerals and take a break from trying to repair the city’s water system and cleaning up the town.

On Wednesday, an American flag was raised and a bugler played taps at a memorial service at the blast site. A few miles away, one of the victims, Kenneth “Luckey” Harris Jr., was laid to rest.

Harris, a 52-year-old Dallas firefighter who lived in West, was one of 10 first responders who died.

Hundreds of firefighters from Dallas and other areas surrounding West came for the funeral, the first to be held for a first responder killed.

Firefighters lined the sidewalk as Harris’ flag-draped coffin was carried out and loaded into the back of a Dallas firetruck to be carried to the cemetery. Bagpipes played as the coffin went through the crowd.

The investigation continues

“Shovel by shovel,” investigators are combing through the charred remains of the leveled fertilizer distributor after the April 17 explosion in West.

Much of the landscape surrounding the West Fertilizer Co. is unrecognizable. What was once a corn silo appears to have crumpled from the blast. A blue tarp covers the shell of a rail car.

Left is a crater nearly 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep that was once the site of a building. The crater is now filled with mangled metal and crumbs of mortar. Concrete chunks, some the size of shopping carts, are strewn hundreds of yards away from the blast site.

Losses from the explosion will probably top $100 million, said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas.

But amid the devastation, forensic mappers are hoping to find clues.

Hundreds of small pink flags indicate anything on the ground that crews want forensic investigators to take a closer look at.

Officials face a difficult task in reconstructing the fire that preceded the deadly explosion. Still unknown: what types of chemicals and in what quantities were stored at the facility.

Town devastated by explosion is guided by the West way

Putting the pieces together

One official likened the investigation to a jigsaw puzzle.

“Right now, think of that coffee table where all 100 pieces are gathered around,” Brian Hoback, an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the San Antonio Express-News. “Now, we’re going to pull them together.”

ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Champion said determining what started the initial fire is “the key.”

“We feel the explosion was caused by the fire, so we’ve got to determine what the cause and the origin of the fire was, and that’s why we’re … attempting to re-enact that fire scene,” he said. “A fire scene is complicated in itself. But you compound that with an explosion, and it really complicates the issue.”

So far, investigators have ruled out the possibility that natural causes ignited the fire.

WEST, Texas — Residents are slowly returning to a Texas town devastated by a massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people and injured hundreds more.

It is still not clear what caused the initial fire that sparked the explosion on April 17 in West, Texas.

On Monday, about 1,500 students from West went back to school in makeshift classrooms or a neighboring district.

A Facebook page “Prayers for West” had been “liked” nearly 80,000 times.

Besides offering thoughtful messages, the page served as a kind of bulletin board for people in West trying to coordinate donations and help each other.

Reporters have been given access to the devastated area.

It resembles the wake of a tornado — trees are uprooted, an apartment building’s walls are blown off, and enormous chunks of concrete litter the surrounding fields.

The disaster has rocked the community and, even in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombings, which have received the lion’s share of media coverage this past week, it has reverberated throughout the country.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will go to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on Thursday to attend a memorial service for the victims of the blast, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

Townspeople devastated and displaced

At the time of the blast, West Fertilizer Co. was closed for business, so there were no workers inside, officials said.

The explosion injured hundreds of people who lived near the distributor, authorities said, and others were without a place to live because the blast damaged their homes. West’s high school and middle school were damaged.

Investigators searched for clues Monday morning in the 22-foot-deep crater left when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded.

At a Monday afternoon press conference Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner told reporters that officials are confident the neighborhood near the site of the explosion is safe. Several authorities spoke at the news conference but offered few details about the investigation, noting that they are being methodical and that the probe will take time.

At a news conference Sunday evening, officials said determining how many volatile chemicals were in the facility will be difficult because the company’s records were destroyed in the blast. They are attempting to find the records elsewhere.

The start of school Monday gave some members of this small community a feeling that many had not enjoyed for days — a calm familiarity

The elementary school in West is the only local school that wasn’t damaged in the blast. Some parents escorted their children inside the school Monday. Counselors were at the ready.

Many of the parents’ cars had lettering marked by police, an indication that the families live within the area affected by the blast.

Dr. Marty Crawford, the superintendent of West Independent School District, and his staff worked through the weekend to get the elementary school ready for class Monday. On Sunday evening, the high-energy administrator barked orders to staff carrying boxes of supplies up and down the school’s hallways.

The town’s high school and middle school were too damaged to hold classes. So on Monday, about 500 high school and middle school students opened their books in Waco, about 15 miles south of their hometown.

In the days after the blast, officials in nearby school districts put their heads together to come up with a plan to help stranded students in West.

One school district donated 13 buses to drive the kids to Connally Independent School District in Waco, which provided extra classroom space. As the students arrived, teachers shook hands and hugged West students.

To help the West students feel more at home, volunteers worked through the weekend to paint some of the classrooms with West’s colors — yellow and scarlet — and some Connally students wore red to school, said Wesley Holt, a Connally spokesman.

Back in West, a small town kept trying to cope. Evacuated townspeople began returning home over the weekend. Authorities allowed a second wave to revisit their homes Sunday. The process was going well, said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro tem. Texas state police were keeping a close watch on cordoned-off areas near the blast site, he said, and a strict curfew is being enforced.

Those returning home to the areas still cordoned found a heavy police presence and numerous checkpoints. Their homes are just as they left them when they were abruptly evacuated out of fears a toxic cloud of gas would engulf the community. Many of the homes have broken windows, and all have a spray-painted “X” on the front door. The “X” shows that officials had searched the homes for victims.

Brothers and friends lost

On Sunday evening, representatives recited prepared remarks from some grieving families.

One speaker said that Doug and Robert Snokhous “were much more than brothers. They were lifelong friends.”

The siblings lived a half-mile from each other in West, and both worked at Central Texas Iron Works in Waco. Doug had been there for 30 years; Robert had just reached his 20th year at the company.

“They were always together and we are comforted that they were together in the end,” the family said.

The family of volunteer firefighter Jerry Chapman said that “other firemen and women survived because of the action he took.”

Chapman wanted to “live on the edge,” according to a statement read for reporters, and “his faith in God and fellow firefighters gave him the strength to lay down his life for others.”

Chapman “died a hero,” his family believes.

An obituary for the Dallas firefighter who lived in West, “Luckey” Harris, said he loved offshore fishing with his sons and spending time on his boat, the “Boots Up.” He had been married, the obit says, for 28 years.

CNN is working to confirm the names of others who died.

Consolation in church

Meanwhile on Sunday, as parishioners streamed out of St. Mary’s Catholic Church after Sunday’s service, Father Boniface Onjefu hugged and consoled his congregants, and gave reassuring smiles and high fives to the church’s youngest members.

“West is a strong city. We shall definitely overcome this tragedy,” Onjefu told those assembled at his church, about a mile from the explosion site. Several members of St. Mary’s were killed or injured battling the blaze, Onjefu told CNN.

During the service, the priest told congregants what he saw on that awful day. He had just returned to the rectory when he heard the blast.

“I thought it was an earthquake,” he said. The lights flickered on and off as his small two-story brick residence shook from the explosion.

Onjefu said that when he headed outside, he was awestruck by a large, dark plume of smoke rising on the north side of town. He got into his car and drove toward it.

The priest was one of the first to arrive in the destroyed part of town. He immediately began helping remove victims from a severely damaged nursing home. He told his congregants that he had witnessed “fear in the eyes” of people walking the streets of West.

The church’s parking lot became a staging area, of sorts, for police and first responders who have flooded the north central Texas community since the blast.

Long lines of cars streamed by West’s community center, dropping off food, water and other rations throughout the weekend. Numerous church groups and restaurants handed out hot meals.

“These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco Police Department Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

The cause of the fire and explosion has not been determined yet, but investigators have isolated the center of the blast, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kistner said Sunday. The explosion left a large crater in the middle of the distributor, Kistner said.

Funeral arrangements are pending for those killed.

WEST, Texas (CNN) — The bodies of 14 people have been recovered in West, Texas, Sgt. Jason Reyes said Friday, two days after a fiery explosion ripped through the heart of the close-knit central Texas town.

blast-texasSixty people are unaccounted for, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Friday.

He said authorities are checking to see whether any of them are in hospitals.

Reyes said 200 people have been injured and 50 homes have been destroyed.

“This is still being treated as a crime scene,” Reyes said.

Many questions remain about the fire and an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, which badly damaged a five-block area.

What caused the blast, so deafening its ground motion registered as an earthquake?

How many people died and how many were pulled from the charred rubble alive?

Was it the result of criminal activity?

Despite the flurry of questions, one thing is certain. The effect on the small town of West — population 2,800 — is massive.

The fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night leveled buildings, ripped up walls and threw people on the ground blocks away.

About half the town was evacuated, including a nursing home with 133 residents.

It was still unclear early Friday what the exact number of casualties was.

Officials are treading cautiously on providing specific numbers on victims, but fire officials confirmed some deaths among their crew.

Five West firefighters, one Dallas firefighter and four emergency responders were killed, the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas said in a statement Thursday.

So far 150 buildings have been searched and cleared, with more left to search, CNN’s Martin Savidge reported.

The structures are weakened, and need to be shored up before they can be searched.

Three firetrucks and one EMS truck were also destroyed.

The blast stunned residents and left behind a trail of charred devastation in the small town.

“There’s no way I would have ever dreamed that this would have happened,” paramedic Bryce Reed told CNN’s “AC360°.”

“I mean, it’s profound and it’s dire, and it hurts like hell,” he said. “But, you know, the main thing we wanted to convey is that … please keep the prayers coming. Please keep the thoughts coming.”

When he responded to the scene, it left him speechless, Reed said.

“I can tell you there’s absolutely no words that I possess that can convey adequately what I saw,” he said.

“It went from my hometown and my reality and my existence to a war zone in an instant, and I haven’t even had time to process that yet.”

He lost some friends, all volunteer emergency workers, just like him.

“People who didn’t have to go to that blast, went to that blast,” he said. “People who could have stayed at home, they didn’t have to go. … they were all volunteers.”

Authorities are still scouring the area for survivors — and answers.

“We still are holding out some hope,” Mayor Tommy Muska said. He said the number of casualties may rise.

The area around the site of remains “very volatile” because of the presence of ammonium nitrate, according to Matt Cawthon, chief deputy sheriff of McLennan County.

Ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer composed of ammonia and nitrogen, is also a component of explosives widely used in mining.

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

Brad Smith felt his house shake. It’s 50 miles away from the plant.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Local authorities are working with federal officials, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to determine the cause of the deadly explosion.

Though there are no indications of criminal activity, Swanton said, it has not been ruled out yet.

It’s unclear whether the plant had safety problems.

But in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Seven years ago, the company had a complaint against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and about 20 miles north of Waco.

The blast came as the nation remains on edge following the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday that killed three and left about 180 injured.

It also coincided almost exactly with the 20th anniversary of a fire in Waco that ended a federal agents’ siege against members of the Branch Davidian sect.

More than 80 sect members and some federal agents died. That anniversary is Friday.

Teams of first responders descended on the devastated town of West, Texas, early Thursday where a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant left scores of casualties and turned homes to rubble.

The number of dead remained unclear, with police saying it could be between five and 15. More than 160 people were injured and “three to four” firefighters were missing or unaccounted for, officials said.

Firefighters were battling the blaze that precipitated the explosion Wednesday night. And a storm system heading into the area brought helpful rain — but also heavy winds that might make it much tougher to contain the fire.

Teams of first responders descended on the devastated town of West, Texas, early Thursday where a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant left scores of casualties and turned homes to rubble.

The number of dead remained unclear, with police saying it could be between five and 15. More than 160 people were injured and “three to four” firefighters were missing or unaccounted for, officials said.

WACO, TX — A devastating explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant Wednesday night in the town of West, Texas, sending a massive fireball into the sky.

Carolyn Costello has the latest on the blast.

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