Center of West blast located

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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WEST -- On the grass outside a shredded apartment complex on Sunday sat several large chunks of concrete, basketball-size pieces of shrapnel sent flying by the force of the fertilizer plant explosion last week.

Officials said the concrete and other pieces were once part of the West Fertilizer Co., which exploded about 20 minutes after a fire broke out Wednesday evening.

On Sunday, a handful of reporters and photographers were allowed to see some of the areas that were hit the hardest by the explosion, which killed 14 people - mostly first responders - and injured scores.

The force of the blast radiated out, slamming into a railroad track berm, investigators said. The force was deflected upward by the berm before rushing back down to pummel the apartments, a nursing home and West Intermediate School, and eventually moving into neighborhoods.

"The easiest way to describe it is to think of a wave going out and it may come up and down," said Kelly Kistner, an assistant state fire marshal.

The destruction from the blast spread over 37 blocks of West that were described as a "war zone" by Brian Hoback, the National Response Team leader with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Four twisted metal structures at the fertilizer plant were visible, but the berm kept reporters from seeing any activity there.

Kristner said investigators have located the center of the explosion, "which is important, because as we conduct our investigation we'll be working from an outer perimeter inward, from the least damage to the greatest damage. So knowing the seat of that explosion is important."

Kristner said investigators still don't know where the fire that sent firefighters rushing to the scene started.

Crater being checked

Robert Champion, the ATF special agent in charge from Dallas, said it will probably be several days before more details can be released about the origin or possible causes of the explosion.

He said investigators are taking a hard look at the crater that the explosion created.

"That's what we're going to be doing today and in the next couple of days is getting in the hole and start digging that out and see what transpired to cause this devastation in this area," he said.

The ATF has about 50 personnel on site, and the state fire marshal has 17. But a number of other state and federal agencies are at the explosion site, including the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Kistner said investigators were optimistic that they can catalog the chemicals at the plant when the explosion occurred, but as of Sunday, they did not have that information.

"Our priority today is the line-of-duty death investigation for the firefighters and first responders who lost their lives in this incident," Kistner said. "The line-of-duty death investigation will be everything from initial response, the command structure on site down to the tactics that were used."

A quiet Sunday

On Sunday, little activity was evident around the nursing home or apartment complex. A few Texas Department of Public Safety patrol cars drove slowly through the streets, but it was otherwise quiet. Hundreds of the town's 2,800 residents attended church services earlier in the day.

Farther from the blast site, many homes had garage doors and windows blown out.

"Several blocks we had projectiles or shrapnel that has been found of different sizes," Kistner said. "Smaller pieces have been found blocks away."

Many homes in the blocks closest to the blast appeared to have structural foundation and roofing damage. Investigators said inspectors will determine whether those buildings are habitable.

The apartment complex was a shambles. Its roof was gone. Windows were blown out, and support beams had been added to keep it from collapsing.

Piles of debris, much of which had been removed from its units, were stacked around the complex. Most of the debris consisted of wood and scraps of clothing, but the floral pattern on a mattress piece was seen in in one pile.

A small slot machine appeared untouched in one damaged unit, resting on what appeared to be a closet shelf.

Closer to the blast site, a basketball court was almost unrecognizable: One goal was barely standing, and the other bent at an odd angle.

Across the street, the nursing home was also heavily damaged, though the roof was still in place in some areas.

Ceiling tiles had fallen in almost all the rooms. Jagged cracks ran through the nursing home's brick exterior, and a painting was listing sideways on one crumpled wall.

Remembering victims

Later Sunday, relatives of three victims voiced their appreciation for prayers and support. Brothers Robert and Doug Snokhous, Jerry Chapman and Kevin Sanders were among those killed.

"Pray for the first responders who dedicate their lives to others and pray for volunteer firefighters who charge into danger to keep the rest of us safe, putting themselves at risk only for the love of their community, neighbors, family, and friends," said Wendy Norris of the Texas Line of Duty Task Force, speaking from a statement for the Snokhous brothers.

Doug Snokhous had been married to Donna Beseda for 13 years and they had two daughters, Lauren and Laken.

Robert Snokhous was married to Alison Snokhous for 14 years, and they had a daughter, Marquee, and a son, Robert.

Both worked at Central Texas Iron Works in Waco and were longtime volunteer firefighters in West.

Denton firefighter Steve Athey told reporters of the firefighting passion that Abbott firefighter Jerry Chapman had every day. Chapman's parents stood behind Athey as he read their statement.

"His faith in God and his fellow firefighters gave him the strength to lay his life down for others," Athey said.

Grapevine firefighter Jamie Shipler announced that Sanders, a volunteer firefighter in West, will have a funeral in another state.

Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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