WEST, Texas — 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 today to find out what remained.
The news came after a nervous day where West officials told residents packed in a hotel waiting for updates about their neighborhood that leaking gas tanks were causing small fires near the blast site, keeping authorities from lifting blockades. But officials emphasized that the fires were contained and the town was safe.
"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 late this afternoon, but did not indicate when all evacuated residents could return.
Residents with homes inside the zone were told to assemble at a designated location and show identification. As the hour when the area was to be opened neared, residents and insurance agents formed a mile-long line of cars. Law enforcement checked the IDs of each person inside.
Some who do not live in the designated area were turned away. Police used soap to number the windshields of cars allowed into the area.
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.
Many hope to find insurance papers and family records to help with recovery. Others simply wish to reclaim any belongings that might be buried under splintered homes.
Tom and Tiffanie Juntunen were in the car line waiting to enter. As first responders, they had gotten a glimpse of their home and knew what to expect, but wanted to grab a few essentials before spending the night with friends.
"There's a boil order, utilities could be sketchy, better to hit the road," said Tom Juntunen, a 33-year-old construction worker.
He said their home's front and back doors had been blown in and the garage door looked as though it had been battered with a sledgehammer.
"I thought at first the SWAT team kicked the doors in," he said, "but then we saw the blast left all the kitchen cabinets open and all the other damage and we knew it was just from the force of the explosion."
The Juntunens live in an area farthest away from the blast where homes were less damaged.
During a town hall meeting today, Mayor Tommy Muska apologized for failing to communicate with residents, telling them he was focused on technical aspects of the situation.
He said the damage northwest of the site is the worst. "When you see this place you will know a miracle happened," Muska told the town hall crowd.
Those being allowed in are only to collect a few belongings, he said, adding there's no water or gas and just a little electricity.
The mayor said "it's devastating" closer to the blast area, which is where his family lives.
"I've seen our neighborhood and it's not really pretty," Muska said. "This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint."
He was reluctant to give a timeline on when residents in that area could get to their homes. He said the re-entry would be divided into three stages and hoped everyone would get in within the week.
Students from a school near the plant that was heavily damaged by the blast will finish their year in a nearby town at a facility repainted in their school colors, red and black.
Earlier today, at a hotel where evacuees huddled, paramedic and town spokesman Bryce Reed told residents that small tanks were leaking and had triggered fires in one part of town. He said they were small and were contained, and didn't cause further injuries.
"The whole place is still on fire, smoldering, all that kind of stuff. It could spark up," Reed said. But, he cautioned, "There isn't really enough structure left to light up and burn."
Reed described dozens of portable, white tanks at the site that are typically filled with anhydrous ammonia from larger storage tanks for when farmers request them. The tanks get weak when they are exposed to fire and bleed, he said.
The tanks are attached to plows pulled by tractors and feed streams of the chemical into the ground as the plow passes to fertilize. Reed said they resemble large, horizontal propane tanks.
"You're safe where you're at," he told those at the hotel.
Resident Gene Anderson, 64, said hearing Reed's comments helped avoid panic: "He just nipped it in the bud like it should be."
But closer to the site, things were more tense. Ron Price, a 53-year-old construction worker, said he approached the police barricade to check on his son's damaged home.
Price said he drove his truck up to the roadblock and was trying to get in when state troopers "came flying down the road" from a half block away and told everyone to get back because there was another chance of explosion. People in their backyards outside the barricade were also told to get back, he said.
"It was pretty scary. Everybody just jumped and took off running," Price said.
Dorothy Sulak, who lost her home and her job when the blast went off, was among those hoping she could get back in. The fertilizer plant secretary fled with only the clothes on her back.
There's a hole in her roof now, and her medicine, cash, even her glasses, are somewhere in the rubble. She used reading glasses for three days, until she could get a ride to nearby Waco to be fitted for new prescription frames.
"Yes, it's just stuff. But it's my stuff," said Sulak, 71.