WEST, Texas — Finally with a firm body count, the Central Texas town torn and bruised by a crater-making fertilizer plant explosion shifted toward recovery.
Many among West’s 2,800 residents felt stuck. Unable to direct their full energies to recovery while the investigation into what caused Wednesday’s explosion at West Fertilizer Co. began in earnest, the displaced and mourning made do with what remained in their control.
Bill Killough, 76, paced the lobby of a local hotel Friday, planning how to make the most of whatever time authorities grant him to visit his house 2 ½ blocks from the site.
“Once they get through totally going over that fertilizer plant that blew up and they are satisfied that it is no danger to anybody, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to go back to our houses,” said Killough, who used to restore classic cars.
Killough said his handyman could help him grab his guns, wrapping the rifles in blankets while he focused on his wife’s list of items, mostly documents that will be important in the recovery stage.
He briefly was able to sneak back in shortly after the blast and said the damage was bad, but not much worse than when they stripped it back to its frame to renovate a couple years ago. The blast ripped homes, schools and a nursing home within a four- to five-block radius, injuring more than 200.
Killough had talked to a contractor who promised he would be first on his list, but he fretted about how hard it will be to get materials, especially windows, in a town with so many blown out.
The fertilizer facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be injected into soil. It also mixes other fertilizers.
Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he never would forget the “selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us.”
One of the plant employees also was killed responding to the fire, Adair said.
Federal investigators and the state fire marshal’s office began inspecting the blast site Friday to collect evidence that may point to a cause. Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators still were combing through debris and would continue Saturday.
Residents cannot return to their homes until investigators are finished, Perot said. She did not have a timetable on when that might be.
Perry said the “search and rescue phase is now complete” and the “recovery side” had begun.
Asked if additional oversight was needed for fertilizer plants, Perry said “those are legitimate, appropriate questions for us to be asking.”
“If there’s a better way to do this, we want to know about it,” he said.
There is only one funeral home in West and like much of the town Aderhold Funeral Home hasn’t been operating under full power since Wednesday.
Even fully staffed, 14 funerals would overwhelm the staff, but on top of that it’s down a funeral director.
Brothers Robert and Larry Payne share that responsibility. But Robert Payne, who as a volunteer firefighter was on the scene when the explosion occurred, remains in intensive care.
The state and national associations are organizing other funeral homes that have offered to supply staff and vehicles once services are arranged for the dead.
That hadn’t started yet though. Robbie Bates, president elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, said that the medical examiner’s office had not yet released the bodies to the families.
Bates said Aderhold was doing all it could to assist families in the midst of dealing with its own travails.
“They don’t intend to charge the families,” Bates said.