Investigators take time to remember those killed in West explosion

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Memorial service

Thursday's memorial service for the victims of the West explosion begins at 2 p.m. at Baylor University's Ferrell Center, 1900 S. University Parks Drive, in Waco.

The service is open to the public on a first-come basis, which will be attended by President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom are scheduled to speak.

All of those attending will go through airport-like security and no bags, sharp objects, liquids, firearms or signs will be allowed.

Cameras and cellphones are permitted.

Public parking will be available at Floyd Casey Stadium with shuttle service begining at 10 a.m. The doors open at 11 a.m. and will remain open until 1:45 p.m., or until the center is full.

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WEST -- One week after a deadly explosion flattened a fertilzer plant, investigators at the blast site raised U.S. and Texas flags atop a scaffolding and conducted a moment of silence, followed by the playing of Taps by a Texas Department of Public Safety honor guard .

It was a quick and solemn break for the investigators, who went back to work sifting through piles of rubble, trying to find pieces to the puzzle of the blast that killed 15 people and injured more than 200.

"Right now, think of that coffee table, where all 100 pieces are gathered around," said Brian Hoback, the National Response Team Supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Now, we're going to pull them together."

Hoback was part of the ATF team that investigated the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and he was also a supervisor on the 9/11 attack at the Pentagon.

A small group of reporters and photographers were allowed access to the blast site for the first time Wednesday, a week after a fire started at West Fertilizer Co., eventually sparking a massive explosion that sent a fiery wave of destruction across a portion of the farming community of 2,700.

Damage estimates from the explosion should reach at least $100 million, the Insurance Council of Texas reported Wednesday.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Ferrell Center at Baylor University in Waco. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the public service.

Focus is on the fire

The early evening explosion blew through the foundation of one building and left another structure a pile of charred debris, according to pool reports Wednesday.

All that was left of one building, located on the western edge of the property near the railroad tracks, was a portion of the concrete foundation that now sits next to the gaping 10 foot by 93 foot crater.

The other building appeared to have charred debris but the burned area didn't appear to reach the crater.

Three fire trucks and one ambulance that responded to the fire were still at the site.

Most of the first responders who died were found just east of the blast crater, said Kelly Kistner, assistant state fire marshal.

West volunteer firefighter Kevin Maler told the Star-Telegram last week that as he approached the fire, he advised firefighters to get away from the plant. He said he had received a call from a former plant employee who said "you need to be a quarter-mile away if that thing blows."

After talking to the firefighters Maler headed toward the fire station to get his gear.

"Within a minute, it blew," Maler said. "There wasn't enough time. ... They were trying to back the truck out when it blew."

Investigators are still trying to determine what sparked the fire and where it originated.

"The main focus right now in the investigation is the fire," said Robert Champion, ATF Special Agent in Charge.

On Wednesday, investigators were sifting through the remains of two silos on site, one of which contained corn and the other milo.

Four tanks of anhydrous ammonia remain intact at the site and have been secured. A rail car, also containing anhydrous ammonia, sits on a rail spur covered by a blue tarp. All have been secured and no longer pose a risk, Kistner said.

Czech Republic approves aid

The April 17 explosion damaged 350 homes -- including 140 that were destroyed -- authorities said.

"The insured losses should reach $100 million as soon adjusters are allowed to inspect all of the structures and vehicles that were damaged," said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas. "As far as I can tell, every policyholder in West has been contacted by their insurance company and help has been offered."

Hanna said that in many cases, expense checks have already been issued for West policyholders who need shelter, food and clothing. Others have declined the expense check because friends and family who have opened their homes to them.

One insurance adjuster said a policyholder told to him that cans of food inside her home had exploded but that the house had no broken windows, according to the news release.

Donations -- both in cash and materials -- continue to flow into West.

On Wednesday, the Czech Republic announced that it has approved $200,000 in aid to the town, which founded in 1892 by Czech and German immigrants and prides itself on its Czech heritage.

"The aid approved by the government will mostly be used to rebuild the infrastructure of Czech-American organizations and associations in the town," according to the press release.

Staff writers Nick Dean and Lee Williams contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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