Bill Warren, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4819, lowers the U.S. flag to half staff in memory of victims of the West Fertilizer Company explosion April 18, 2013 about 20 miles north of Waco in West, Texas. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The death toll in the explosion that rocked a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on Wednesday has risen to 14, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Friday, as the small community continued to grapple with the havoc wrought by the blast.
On Friday morning, DPS said the bodies of 12 people had been recovered from the blast zone in West and that 200 people have been injured. The department confirmed late Friday afternoon that two more fatalities had been discovered.
Ten of the dead were first responders — including five from the West Volunteer Fire Department and four emergency medics, West Mayor Tommy Muska said.
Muska told NBC 5 DFW's Jeff Smith on Friday morning that 15 people had died in the explosion, but DPS said Friday morning that it could not confirm the number.
Muska said five firefighters, four EMTs, five employees of the fertilizer plant and one other person had been killed.
Following a tour of the rubble Friday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told reporters the search-and-rescue phase for anyone still trapped was largely finished. He said the state would offer help to the 29-member local fire department that had been "basically wiped out."
"To the first responders: I cannot say thank you enough," Perry said.
President Barack Obama on Friday declared a state of emergency over the blast and ordered federal aid to assist with the response efforts.
In an 8 a.m. press conference, DPS Sgt. Jason Reyes said authorities would send the remains of those killed to a forensic lab in Dallas to be identified. He said the first 12 bodies that had been found were discovered "in the area of the plant."
Reyes said emergency crews lost three firetrucks in the blast as well as one EMS vehicle. He did not say if that vehicle was an ambulance.
Community in Mourning
The names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800, even if they hadn't been officially released, as early as Thursday afternoon.
A small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the fire to fight it before the blast is believed to have been killed.
People mourned those believed dead at a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church on Thursday night.
"We know everyone that was there first, in the beginning," said Christina Rodarte, 46, who has lived in West for 27 years. "There's no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders, because anytime there's anything going on, the fire department is right there, all volunteer."
Rodarte said she knew Capt. Kenny Harris, an off-duty Dallas Fire-Rescue firefighter who lived south of West. The city of Dallas said he responded to the fire to help.
The four-to-five-block radius leveled by the blast changed the town's landscape. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school was set ablaze and as many as 80 homes were seriously damaged.
Residents on Friday continued to be kept out of a large swath of West where search-and-rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble. Some with permission who made forays closer to the destruction came back stunned.
Garage doors were ripped off homes. Fans hung askew from twisted porches. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all of the building's windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.
"I had an expectation of what I would see, but what I saw went beyond my expectations in a bad way," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said after a visit. "It is very disturbing to see the site."
McLennan County Sheriff Matt Cawthon said the area surrounding the destroyed fertilizer plant is a highly populated neighborhood. He described it as "devastated" and "still very volatile."
Ammonium nitrate — commonly used as fertilizer — was found at the scene, but he didn't know if any of the chemical remained, he said.
Brenda Covey, 46, said she lived in the now-leveled apartment complex across the street from the plant.
On Thursday, she learned that two men she knew, both volunteer firefighters, had died. Word of one came from her landlord because they live in the same complex in nearby Hillsboro. The other was the best man at her nephew's wedding.
"Word gets around quick in a small town," said Covey, who spent her whole life living in and around West.
Firefighter Darryl Hall, from Thorndale, which is about 50 miles away from West, was one of the rescue workers who was going from house to house and checking to see if anybody might have been inside.
"People's lives are devastated here. It's hard to imagine," Hall said.
Cause of blaze still unclear
The Wednesday night blast was apparently touched off by a fire, but it remained unclear what sparked the blaze.
A team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still had not been able to begin investigating the scene because it remained unsafe, agency spokeswoman Franceska Perot said.
The West Fertilizer Co. facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be directly injected into soil, and a blender and mixer of other fertilizers.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.
The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.
In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.
State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it's not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.
That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit, said the commission's executive director Zak Covar. He said no other complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there haven't been additional inspections.
At the church service, the Rev. Ed Karasek told the hundreds gathered that it would take time for the community to heal.
"Our hearts are hurting, our hearts are broken," he said. The nondenominational gathering for prayer and song was intended to honor those who rushed toward the danger and those who found themselves too close.
"I know that every one of us is in shock," he said. "We don't know what to think."
"Our town of West will never be the same, but we will persevere."
Many Associated Press writers and NBC 5 reporters contributed to this collaborative report.