After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a Texas fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball were allowed to go home Saturday to find out what remained.
Those returning home have been told they will be subject to a curfew and required to be inside their homes by 7 p.m. every night. Many of the town's 2,800 residents have been displaced. They will be permitted to return home in stages.
The returnees are allowed home with certain restrictions:
- No vehicles larger than a pickup is allowed.
- Each home is only permitted to have two vehicles.
- Only residents 18 years of age and older are allowed to return.
"It is safe, safe and safe," City Council member Steve Vanek said emphatically at a news conference.
He said residents in a small area would be let back in later Saturday afternoon, but did not indicate when all evacuated residents could return.
Residents with homes inside the zone that's the first to open were told to assemble at a designated location and show identification. A crane put concrete pylons across the entrances to side streets.
Law enforcement checked the IDs of each person inside a long line of cars that had assembled. Some who do not live in the designated area were turned away.
Site was leaking gas
Evacuated residents had been anxiously waiting to return and assess what is left of roughly 80 damaged homes after the blast Wednesday night at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 14 and injured 200 more. The blast scarred a four-to-five block radius that included a nursing home, an apartment building and a school.
Earlier on Saturday, officials revealed that tanks on site are leaking gas and causing small fires, which have been contained..
Paramedic Bryce Reed visited a hotel crammed with residents on Saturday and gave a short briefing. He said the leaks were caused by tanks damaged by heat and had triggered small fires. He said no further evacuations were necessary.
Residents moved ahead with what they could — a contractor to rebuild, a funeral home to arrange a service — but continued to wait for authorities to let them back in their neighborhoods and release the remains of the 14 dead.
Two days after the West Fertilizer Co. fertilizer facility exploded in a blinding fireball, grieving relatives filed into a church offering comfort for families, as volunteers nearby handed out food to those still unable to return to homes damaged by the massive blast.
Ten of the dead were first-responders — including five from the West Volunteer Fire Department and four emergency medics, West Mayor Tommy Muska said..
Obama pledges relief aid
Later Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration and pledged federal disaster relief aid to help West recover. After addressing Friday night's arrest of the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect, the president extended his prayers and sympathies to everyone affected by the plant explosion and said he'd spoken to Perry and Muska and vowed that the community would get the resources it needs to rebuild.
"Our thoughts, our prayers are with the people of West, Texas, where so many good people lost their lives, some lost their homes, many were injured, many are still missing," Obama said.
Following a tour of the rubble Friday, Gov. Rick Perry told reporters the state would offer help to the 29-member local fire department that had been "basically wiped out."
The fertilizer facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be injected into soil. It also mixes other fertilizers.
Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he never would forget the "selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us."
One of the plant employees also was killed responding to the fire, Adair said.
Federal investigators and the state fire marshal's office began inspecting the blast site Friday to collect evidence that may point to a cause. Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators still were combing through debris and would continue Saturday.
Recovery phase in place
Perry said the "search and rescue phase is now complete" and the "recovery side" had begun.
Asked if additional oversight was needed for fertilizer plants, Perry said "those are legitimate, appropriate questions for us to be asking."
"If there's a better way to do this, we want to know about it," he said.
Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who toured the town Friday, said they would wait for more information about the explosion before considering whether there should be more regulation of anhydrous ammonia.
Town forever changed
The accident forever changed the community's landscape. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze and a nursing home left in ruins. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all the building's windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.
The dead included Uptmor and Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary who doubled as a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department. A captain of the Dallas Fire Department who was off-duty at the time but responded to the fire to help also died.
There is only one funeral home in West and like much of the town, Aderhold Funeral Home hasn't been operating under full power since Wednesday.
Even fully staffed, 14 funerals would overwhelm the staff, but on top of that it's down a funeral director.
Brothers Robert and Larry Payne share that responsibility. But Robert Payne, who as a volunteer firefighter was on the scene when the explosion occurred, remains in intensive care.
The state and national associations are organizing other funeral homes that have offered to supply staff and vehicles once services are arranged for the dead.
Robbie Bates, president elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, said that the medical examiner's office had not yet released the bodies to the families.
Bates said Aderhold was doing all it could to assist families in the midst of dealing with its own travails.
"They don't intend to charge the families," Bates said.