Memorial under way for firefighters killed in West

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

The service in Waco

Today'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. President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Perry 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 beginning 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.

First lawsuits are filed

Two lawsuits have been filed in McLennan County court against Adair Grain, which does business as West Fertilizer Co. The first was filed Friday on behalf of insurance carriers that represent property owners and businesses, including stores, service companies, a car dealership, an inn and two churches. The second was filed Monday for Andrea J. Gutierrez, a single mother who lived with a teenage son at the apartment complex that was gutted by the blast. Company officials declined to comment.

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News update

President Obama and the first lady have arrived in Waco aboard Air Force One, and the memorial service has begun at the Ferrell Center on the campus of Baylor University.

Watch the services here.

Original report

WEST -- One week after a deadly explosion flattened a fertilizer plant, investigators at the blast site raised U.S. and Texas flags atop a scaffolding and observed a moment of silence, followed by the sounding 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 piece together the puzzle behind 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."

A small group of reporters and photographers was given access to the blast site Wednesday for the first time, 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. today 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, on the western edge of the property near the railroad tracks, was a portion of the concrete foundation that now sits next to a 10-by-93-foot crater.

Three firetrucks 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 have opened their homes to them.

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

Wednesday afternoon, insurance adjusters were climbing atop rooftops and checking foundations. Some houses already had signs for roofing companies in their yards.

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 was 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 a news release.

Memorial service scheduled for today

Most of West's residents will make the short drive on Interstate 35 to Waco today for the memorial service to honor the firefighters and other first responders who died.

"There won't be a dry eye in the house when they play those bagpipes," said Jim Gerek, son of West's former Fire Chief Freddy Gerek.

Gerek, who has helped organize a fund drive through the local Point West Bank, said he hopes Obama's presence is a sign that more federal assistance is on the way for West's recovery.

State troopers and game wardens will patrol the city during the memorial service to keep an eye on things -- and to prevent looting.

"Absolutely we will be here," said Sgt. Jason Reyes, a DPS spokesman. "We will be here so that everybody here in West that wants to go to the service can go to the service."

Staff writers Nick Dean and Lee Williams contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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