Residents return to Texas blast site

TEXAS: Waco Police spokesperson William Swanton speaks to the media at a conference regarding an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early April 18, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Stone

West, Texas - Some residents displaced by a massive blast at a Texas fertiliser plant were allowed to return to their homes on Saturday after an exhaustive search of the rubble found just 14 bodies.

"We do not expect to find any more, but we'll see how that goes," assistant state fire marshal Kelly Kistner told reporters.

While investigators still have not yet determined the cause of the blast Kistner said there is "no indication" that it was anything other than a terrible accident.

The sheer scale of destruction caused by Wednesday's explosion and fire led local officials to fear that as many as 70 people were killed.

But by late Friday nearly all of the 60 people still unaccounted for had been found safe staying at area hotels or with friends or relatives.

Nearly all of the dead were firefighters who were struggling to contain the fire before it reached the ammonia tanks.

Another 200 other people were injured in Wednesday's blast in West, a small town of 2,800 people located 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Dallas.

Residents anxious to retrieve their belongings and patch up the worst of the damage cued up for passes to get through a police cordon, but only those on the outer edge of the evacuation zone were allowed to enter.

Aerial footage of the blast site showed dozens of homes flattened, a 50-unit apartment complex torn to bits and twisted shards of metal at West Fertilizer, which was one of the town's main employers.

A nursing home and several schools were also badly damaged as the fire spread from building to building.

The blast came with the entire country already on edge after the attacks on the Boston Marathon that left three dead and more than 180 wounded on Monday. One of the two suspects was arrested Friday. The other was killed.

The mayor of West - who lost his own home to the blast - urged resident to be patient at a solemn community meeting at the Knights of Columbus hall on the outskirts of town.

"I wish I could tell you that this time next week we're going to be peachy, but I can't," Mayor Tommy Muska said.

"Boarding up is going to be the least of my problems because mine's going to be demolished."

He told the townsfolk not to be shy when it came to accepting the food, clothing and household goods that was piling up in donation centers and to stay strong by leaning on each other.

"We're going to get through this," Muska insisted.

The crowd of hundreds of anxious faces broke out into applause when they heard that a nearby school that would house their children for the remainder of the year had been repainted in their own 'Trojan' colors.

They stood to the feet and cheered when EMS Director George Smith spoke of the heroism of those who managed to evacuate over 250 people in the space of three hours with just one functioning ambulance.

"I'm very, very proud of my team," Smith said, his voice breaking with emotion. "They did a great job."

Jerry Willienberg, 60, won't be able to get back into his home until at least Sunday. But he's more concerned now about the families of those killed.

"I either went to school with them or worked with them," he said. "It's tough."

Willienberg worked as a contractor for the plant, trucking out ammonia just about every other day, and insisted that the plant's owners and workers always took safety precautions.

"Over there at Ted's, it was safety first, all the time," he said.

But the West Fertilizer Company was fined by US regulators in 2012 over its transport of hazardous materials, documents showed.

Willienberg worried about how the town will recover from the tragedy - and the loss of a major employer - but was convinced it will find a way.

"West is close-knit. We're going to get over it," he told AFP.


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