By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN and WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
WEST, Texas (AP) — The neighborhood surrounding a Texas fertilizer plant that erupted in a thunderous explosion is gone, and the residents here know they've lost more than the buildings that went up in flames.
Even as investigators were tight-lipped about the number of dead from the blast — authorities say more than 160 are injured but have not yet released a firm death toll — the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800, even if they hadn't been officially released.
Believed to be among them is a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the fire to fight it before the blast. At a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church on Thursday night, the mourning was already starting.
"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."
One victim who Rodarte knew and whose name was released was Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived south of West. He was off duty at the time but responded to the fire to help, according to a statement from the city of Dallas.
Authorities spent much of the day after Wednesday night's blast searching the town for survivors. It was not clear why they were having trouble tallying an official death toll. At one point, they said they believed 5 to 15 people were among the dead, but later backed off giving any firm estimate. Three to five volunteer firefighters were believed to have perished.
Searches continued early Friday morning, and authorities may release more information about the death toll later in the day, said Texas State Trooper D.L. Wilson. "Hopefully," he said.
Even without a full picture of the loss of life, what was becoming clear was that the town's landscape was going to be changed forever by the four-to-five block radius leveled by the blast. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze, and as many as 80 homes were seriously damaged.
Residents were still being kept out of a large swath of West, where search and rescue teams continued to pick through the rubble. Some with permission made forays closer to the destruction and came back stunned, and it was possible that some residents would be let closer to their homes on Friday, emergency workers said.
Homes had garage doors ripped off and porches twisted. Fans hung askew from the 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," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott after his 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.