Officials don't expect West death toll, now at 14, to climb much higher

Posted Friday, Apr. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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WEST - Fourteen bodies have been recovered after an explosion at a decades-old fertilizer plant demolished a section of the small Central Texas town of West, officials said Friday.

But as the sun set on a second straight day of search and recovery efforts in the close-knit community of roughly 2,800, officials announced with some relief that they didn't expect the death toll in the five-block blast zone to climb much higher, if at all.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at an evening briefing at the West Auction Barn, said search and rescue efforts were nearly completed, with only one burned home left to be examined. Once that work was done, he said, the effort would shift to recovery, cleanup and a probe into precisely what caused the disaster.

"Now is the time to be focused on making recovery progress, and asking those questions," Perry said.

Officials said residents would soon gradually be allowed access to their homes, to search for belongings and assess damages.

Also Friday, the 83-year-old owner of the plant, West resident Donald Adair, issued a statement expressing his sympathy and vowing to help authorities determine what caused the fire and explosion Wednesday evening.

"We pledge to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community," wrote Adair, who noted that one of his employees, also a volunteer firefighter, died in the blast.

After nearly 48 hours of confusion over the death toll, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, flanked by the governor, said there were 14 confirmed fatalities. Felton also sought to clarify a statement earlier in the day from Sen. John Cornyn that some 60 people were still unaccounted for.

Felton said many of them had been staying at hospitals or at friends' homes, and had since reconnected with their next of kin. As a result, officials now say they don't expect the death toll to climb much, if any, higher.

"I would be surprised if it's more than a few people," Felton said. "There may end up being one or two more missing, but I can't even say that."

Two hundred people were injured in the blast, which occurred just before 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Many of the dead were first responders whose bodies were removed from the blast scene Thursday night and carried to nearby West High School, said James Miller, also a West volunteer firefighter.

As the flag-draped bodies arrived, Miller said, about 15 firefighters silently saluted.

"We stood for every one of them," he said.

Cornyn had caused a brief stir when he said at a noon briefing that as many as 60 people remained unaccounted for, although he quickly clarified that the number likely included people who simply hadn't connected with relatives.

"There are people in hospitals who might be some of the unaccounted for," he said. "There are people staying with friends in homes. So that number should come down."

A spokeswoman for Scott & White Healthcare said Friday afternoon that seven patients, including one child, remained in critical condition at three hospitals.

Nine of the 28 patients admitted to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco had been released. Four remained in intensive care.

Two of the three patients at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple were in critical condition, as was one of the two pediatric patients receiving care at McLane Children's Hospital in Temple.

Names of the dead were not immediately released. The Star-Telegram has identified 11 emergency responders, mostly volunteer firefighters, who are presumed dead.

Investigators still had no information on what sparked the fire.

Painstaking rescue efforts

Searchers continued the grueling task of shoring up damaged buildings and looking for signs of life, or bodies, into the day Friday.

"I think it is only appropriate we recognize [the search and rescue teams] for their professionalism and heroism as they try to bring closure to these families," said Sgt. Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

As emergency responders begin the process of cleaning the blast site, local and state officials say questions about how firefighters responded to the fire that preceded the blast will be addressed.

"We've had drills in the past, but not for anything of this magnitude," said West Mayor Tommy Muska, himself a volunteer firefighter.

Muska, who said he was less than two blocks from the plant when it exploded, is among those who lost his home.

Other issues such as whether the fertilizer was properly stored, and why homes and schools were allowed to be built just a couple hundred yards from the plant also will be addressed.

Muska noted that the plant is not actually within the West city limits but lies in unincorporated McLennan County.

"The school children were pretty close, and these are legitimate, appropriate questions to be asking," Perry said.

Cornyn appeared briefly with fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin. The Republican trio deflected questions about what they've been told about the possible cause, and whether anything could have been done at the federal or state level to prevent homes and schools from being built so close.

"This is an agricultural community, and ammonium nitrate is an important fertilizer," Cornyn said.

Cruz said Texans and others concerned about the obvious potential dangers of fertilizer need to be patient.

"I think we need to allow time for a careful investigation," Cruz said. "All of us out here want to know what happened here. I think it would be a mistake to rush to a conclusion before the facts are established."

Williams said the investigation was being professionally handled by local, state and federal officials.

"We need to let this process work," he said.

Staff writers Diane Smith and Patrick M. Walker contributed to this report.

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