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WEST, Texas — Students are back in class, homes are being rebuilt and, at least on the surface, normalcy appears to be returning to this battered town six months after one of worst chemical blasts in U.S. history.
But the road to recovery has been tough in West, located about 75 miles south of Dallas, and a lingering unease remains.
Residents jump at car horns and loud noises, and flaring tempers and alcohol abuse appear on the rise. Others are in the midst of painful rehabilitation from injuries from the blast and learning to navigate lives with rebuilt shoulders and legs.
The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. depot occurred six months ago Thursday. A fire inside a storage building at the plant cooked off a store of ammonium nitrate and triggered the massive explosion, killing 15 people, including 10 first-responders, injuring more than 200 others and destroying 161 homes.
The blast blew out windows and tossed residents to the ground for several miles in all directions, left a crater 90 feet across and 10 feet deep and caused more than $200 million in damage. Virtually everyone in this city of 2,800 residents was affected.
The 10 firefighters from five departments killed marked the highest single-incident firefighter fatality count in the USA since 9/11, when 340 firefighters died responding to the terrorist attacks in New York, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The memorial service a week later in nearby Waco drew President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. "No words adequately describe the courage that was displayed on that deadly night,'' the president said then.
Though the city appears to be on the mend, the emotional toll from the incident may take years to detect and treat, says Robert Payne, one of the volunteer firefighters who battled the initial blaze. He survived the blast but suffered nerve damage to his right shoulder, a broken left ankle, broken ribs, broken cheek bones, five teeth blown out, and a busted eardrum. Five West Volunteer Fire Department firefighters died in the explosion.
"The city in general is recuperating," Payne says. "Mentally, it's going to take a long, long time."
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Texas State Fire Marshall's Office is ongoing. Investigators are looking at the 120-volt electrical system in the storage building and a battery-operated golf cart parked inside as possible causes, says Franceska Perot, an ATF spokeswoman in Houston.
How the incident, one of the largest chemical explosions in U.S. history, changes the way ammonium nitrate is regulated in the USA remains to be seen. Ammonium nitrate is a widely used fertilizer but can also be used as an explosive. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh packed more than 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.
The West Fertilizer Co. had more than 200 times that amount — 540,000 pounds — on site four months before the blast, according to state records.
Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company's owners with 24 "serious safety violations" ranging from unsafe handling and storage of ammonium nitrate to failing to have an emergency response plan.
There are currently 16 lawsuits filed in McLennan County Court against Adair Grain Inc., which owns the fertilizer depot. The company belongs to longtime West resident Donald Adair, through a spokesman, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board dispatched 10 investigators to the scene to gather information about the incident as part of the effort to make recommendations on the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate. The agency was scheduled to make a public announcement on its findings later this month, but the inquiry has been stalled by the government shutdown, says Daniel Horowitz, the agency's managing director. Hundreds of similar facilities storing ammonium nitrate exist across the USA and lack proper regulation, he says.
"This is the worst chemical accident we've ever seen at any level," Horowitz says of the West explosion. "The key question for us is, 'How do you protect ammonium nitrate from explosion and what needs to change at the federal level or local level?'"
In West, reminders of the disaster lurk everywhere. The West Fertilizer Co. has been razed completely. Today, it is a large, empty lot encircled by a chain-link fence. Some nearby homes remain in clumps of rubble or hollowed-out ruin. Others have boarded up windows and work crews out front — signs that the owner is rebuilding.
The blast blew out all the windows and popped off the roof of Robert Seith's home on North Main Street, two blocks from the fertilizer company. Insurance only covered $95,000 of the estimated $150,000 in damage, he says. But he was recently approved for a low-interest loan by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which will cover the gap. He plans to rebuild on the same lot — the same place where he and his two siblings were raised.
Since the blast, Seith, 48, and his wife, Kim, have lived in his sister's RV at a nearby trailer park. "I'm ready to come home," he says. "I'm tired of camping."
Overall, the city has issued 150 building permits for new and remodeled homes, says Mayor Tommy Muska, whose own house was badly damage by the explosion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, after initially ruling it would not compensate West, has paid about $700,000 in grants for infrastructure repairs, and the SBA has pledged $7 million in loans, he says.
But Muska is hearing about — and witnessing — what he feels are the intangible effects of the blast: tempers flaring, a rise in alcohol abuse, people losing sleep.
"One of our biggest challenges is keeping morale up and making sure these people are mentally taken care of," Muska says. "There's a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety."
West Long-Term Recovery, a non-profit group created to help blast victims, has seen a steady influx of residents complaining of everything from sudden hyperventilation to short tempers to acute changes in personality, says Karen Bernsen, the group's executive director. Some residents have turned to alcohol and other substances to dull the pain, she says.
She says the symptoms could be brought on by the stress of losing friends and homes to the blast. But more worrisome, she adds, they could stem from undiagnosed brain damage and internal injuries from the blast's shock waves.
A counseling center organized by Baylor University opened in town shortly after the explosion but closed recently due to a lack of clients. Residents are only now coming to terms with their mental issues and seeking professional help, Bernsen says.
"It opened and no one needed it," she says of the center. "Now everybody needs it, and it's gone. It's a very complicating, challenging need."
Another reminder of the blast greets visitors to the West Volunteer Fire Department. Splashed across its south wall are pictures of the department's five firefighters killed in the explosion: Morris Bridges, Cody Dragoo, Joey Pustejovsky, Robert Snokhaus and Douglas Snokhaus.
The other slain firefighters are: Perry Calvin, Jerry Chapman, Kenneth "Luckey" Harris Jr., Kevin Sanders and Cyrus Reed, who were from other Texas fire departments who were in town at the time taking emergency medical technician courses.
The call of a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. compound went out just before 7:30 p.m. on April 17. After their pagers buzzed, members of the West Volunteer Fire Department pulled on their bunker suits and headed to the scene.
Payne, 51, was on vacation and had turned his pager off. But word of the fire spread quickly through West and a relative called with the news.
He pulled on his bunker suit and headed to the depot in his wife's SUV. Some of the firefighters who had arrived earlier were trying to plug a hose into a nearby hydrant. But when Payne and other fire officials saw how fast the the fire was spreading, they decided to pull everyone back.
Payne was zipping up his coat and walking to a group of firefighters on the north side of the fire to tell them to retreat — when his memory cuts out.
The explosion detonated with the force of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT and registered as a magnitude-2.1 earthquake according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Car-sized chunks of concrete and debris flew for miles, demolishing homes and crushing the nearby West Rest Haven nursing home. Miraculously, no one there was immediately killed by the blast.
The blast threw Payne 25 feet into the air and deposited him in a cattle feed tank. He doesn't remember much until the hospital, when workers washed him down and worked to save his mangled right arm, he says. He spent two days in the intensive care unit and two more weeks in the hospital. He still undergoes therapy to get his right arm working properly again.
Payne says his sleeping has been erratic, and he's only now begun to talk to professionals about his mental state. He knows there are others in town far worse off – mentally and physically – than he. Still, he's been heartened by the outpouring of support from neighbors, friends and complete strangers.
"It was awful," Payne says. "But we're a stronger and closer-knit community because of it."