The damage from the massive explosion at West Fertilizer Co. was mostly limited to the half of town north of Oak Street—that’s where 15 died and hundreds were injured. It’s not a clean border—West’s City Hall is just south of Oak, and some of its windows were blown out—but the brunt of the damage was on the north side, and the farther north, the greater the damage. On Saturday, three days after the blast, zone one, the square of 30-some-odd blocks furthest south and therefore least damaged, was opened up—some of the houses there had windows blown out. By Sunday evening, zone two, closer to the blast, was opened up, too, but only to residents and other approved visitors.
To get in, you drove to the community center, near the southern end of town, where a police officer put a letter in thick blue marker on your windshield—a P for press, a V for volunteer, an I for insurance claims adjuster, and a mystifying combination of letters and numbers for residents of the zone itself. Even then, however, there was some confusion about who was allowed where. Concrete barriers blocked off most streets heading in, and an assortment of peace officers were manning the checkpoints.
The density and diversity of law enforcement officers in the town is impressive. There are state troopers, sheriffs from neighboring counties, game wardens, not to mention the local cops, the firefighters on loan, and the ATF agents, though the last tend to keep to the command center at the West high school, from which they’re helping carry out the investigation of the blast site.
Inside zone two, residents were cleaning out their homes. Most of the homes in the area had lost windows, and many had had their garage doors dented in. A row of houses at the northern edge of the zone were only a few hundred yards from the fertilizer plant, and all that separated them from the plant was the football field of the intermediate school. Those houses, while structurally intact, had basically exploded—windows gone, doors blasted in, ceilings caved, bricks peeled off. I was standing there peering across the field at the wreckage of the plant—you can make out a jumble of scorched metallic debris and the remnants of a storage tank, like a dented hull—when a state trooper driving by stopped and handed me a pair of binoculars.
Inside everyone drove slow: the press, the adjusters, the big Red Cross vans, and the TV trucks. Everyone was trolling, and reporters were clearly (and understandably) the least welcome. There was a late-model Lexus towing a trailer of plywood for people to board up their windows. A few teams of volunteers—most of them church-affiliated, in matching T-shirts—helped residents clean out the glass and debris. I interviewed a young father in a Baylor T-shirt who had been living with his family in one of the houses that looked across the field at the plant. He told me he had been at the gym when the plant blew. His 15-year-old son had called him from home when the fire at the plant broke out and asked him whether the family should evacuate. The man said probably not but told his son to text him a picture of the fire so he could say for sure. Then the plant blew up. Everyone was basically OK, except for some glass lacerations, but the man clearly felt quite guilty. Their two dogs had run away, and they’d only found one. They were loading their possessions into big plastic containers that the Red Cross had provided.
The afternoon press conferences took place in front of Town Hall. At 2 p.m. sharp, a group of city officials and fire and law enforcement officers would come out and stand behind the bouquet of microphones. The reporters asked questions about the investigation at the plant—on Tuesday, assistant state fire marshall Kelly Kistner, not for the first time, compared the investigation with an archeological dig: “We’re literally doing it by hand, shovel by shovel.” Actual West residents showed up at the press conferences, too, and they asked about the water notice—the explosion had shaken the ground and damaged the water pipes, and until they could get tested and fixed, the whole town was on a boil water notice.
They also asked about when zone three would be opened up. Zone three was where the buildings had been so badly damaged they were beyond repair. Some people had heard that it might be as many as six weeks, though officials were hinting it would be much sooner than that. Zone-three residents were living in limbo—many had fled with only the clothes they were wearing. Residents worried about their money and belongings. A couple mentioned to me that they had loaded weapons in the house that they wanted to secure. A retired auto mechanic whose house was two blocks from the plant said he had seen the fence around his house on the news but hadn’t had time to make out the condition of the house.
Public officials repeatedly assured them not to worry, that security was high. And it certainly was. But the retired mechanic told me that all those police officers didn’t assuage his fears of looting. “Sometimes they’re the worst ones,” he said. “They can just take their pick.”