President Barack Obama will attend a memorial service planned for the firefighters who were among the 14 people killed in last week’s explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Obama will attend the April 25 service in Waco, Jay Carney, his spokesman, said today. Ten firefighters and emergency medical personnel, along with two West residents who were helping to fight the initial fire at the plant, were among those who died in the April 17 blast. The disaster may be the biggest loss of life among U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York.
The blast injured 200 people, flattened 50 homes and an apartment complex and closed three schools in the city of 2,800, which is about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Dallas. Three of West’s fire trucks and an emergency medical service vehicle were destroyed, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
State and federal investigators have begun excavating a crater left when Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. facility exploded. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has 60 agents and specialists such as engineers and chemists at the scene, Special Agent Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman, said today in an interview from West.
“They’ve got a lot of heavy equipment in there to help move these metal buildings and silos and pieces, huge pieces of metal that are everywhere,” Perot said. The work could last a week or more, and weather could cause delays.
“Water mixing with certain chemicals in there could be an issue,” Perot said.
The plant held a stockpile of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer so volatile it’s been used by terrorists to build truck bombs.
The firefighters, including an employee of the fertilizer plant, were trying to put out the fire and evacuate the neighborhood when the plant exploded. The accident may be the biggest loss of life among firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which killed hundreds of New York fire department personnel, said Wendy Norris, director of the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, a non-profit group that provides assistance to emergency workers.
Investigators from the fire marshal’s office are preparing a three-dimensional map of the crater and an inventory of the chemicals at the plant, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said.
“It is going to be so slow and methodical that the updates are going to be slow in coming as well,” he said at a press conference in West.
Residents still can’t return to the homes closest to the blast scene and part of the town will be without water until underground pipes can be checked for damage, West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek said at today at a news conference.
Around West’s business district, restaurants served bottled water instead of tap water and taped signs to their doors saying their bathrooms were closed. Portable toilets were set up on street corners.
Some vehicles sported numbers written in shoe polish on their windshields, indicating the owners live in the area near the plant and are allowed past the police cordon that still restricts travel.
The blast, which injured almost one of every 10 residents of West, damaged three of the town’s five public schools.
“These are the institutions of this town,” said Joann Williams, 70, who was making a banana-and-fudge ice cream sundae when her ceiling caved in from the explosion. “The schools and the firefighters put on big dinners and fundraisers and help everyone out. It’s a family oriented, close-knit town.”
A largely Catholic community, West traces its roots to Czech immigrants who settled in central Texas to farm wheat and corn, according to the West Chamber of Commerce website. The city hosts an annual polka festival and, thanks to Texas lawmakers, is home to the official state kolache, a fruit-filled pastry available in the town’s several Czech bakeries.
Descendants of the Czech farmers moonlight as volunteer firefighters to give back to the community, said Ronnie Sykora, a former volunteer firefighter, like his father.
“A lot of the guys start when they’re 18 or 20 years old and spend their whole life there,” said Sykora, whose family owns the local Ford dealership. “It’s a camaraderie that keeps them there.”
The same sense of community will pull the school district through its crisis, said Marty Crawford, superintendent of schools.
“It’s going to be an adventure for all of us,” Crawford said at an April 18 news conference.
Rebuilding promises to be a costly task for the town. West, which had revenues of $855,000 in 2004, lost an emergency medical services vehicle as well as the fire trucks in the blast, said Sergeant Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. A new fire truck can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The city hasn’t estimated the cost of replacing its fire trucks or repairing damaged infrastructure, Vanek said. He couldn’t immediately provide figures on the town’s annual budget. West might qualify for block grants from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in a statement.
The West Independent School District listed $13 million in long-term general-obligation debt as of Aug. 31, 2012 financial statements. The district’s revenue decreased by almost $4 million last year to $13.3 million as of Aug. 31, documents show.
Janie Salazar, 57, said her three grandchildren have excelled in West public schools since the kids moved from Dallas two years ago.
“They love their school,” said Salazar, who cleans houses in West. “The teachers and everybody are very good and friendly. They’re great.”
One of the volunteer firefighters who died was an employee of the fertilizer plant, said Donald Adair, owner of Adair Grain Inc., in a statement.
“The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over,” Adair said.
West’s fire department includes business owners, city employees and retirees, said Jeff Clark, a machinist at Westex Custom Fire Apparatus, a West-based company that services and builds fire trucks. Clark said West firefighters include Marty Marak, owner of a heating-and-air conditioning business, and Mayor Tommy Muska.
Clark’s boss, Jimmy Matus, was one of the volunteers who died.
Muska, a firefighter for 26 years, said it was “devastating” to lose so many colleagues. “The heart of the department has been destroyed,” he said.
The department, established in 1894 as West Hose Company #1, has 33 firefighters, according to its website. Firefighters collected half of the money to build the firehouse in 2003 with fundraisers like the Annual West Fire Department BBQ Cook-off.
“People in West are very generous for their churches and worthy local causes, but for themselves they are very conservative,” said Georgia Hutyra, president of the History of West Museum, which is planning a museum in the downtown area to open next year. “Everybody keeps their places looking nice, but you don’t see a lot of flamboyant shows of wealth.”
Vanek said the town has run out of room to store donated food, water and building materials. He said people should send cash or gift cards, which can be given directly to people in need.
Once people’s immediate needs are met, the town will have a longer-term need for construction materials and cash to help rebuild, said Jim Gerik, a spokesman for the volunteer group collecting donations.
Even in good times, small towns have a hard time paying for heavy equipment such as fire trucks, and West lost three of them, Gerik said.
“My dad was the fire marshal for 30 years, and I know what kind of a thing it is to get a new fire truck,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
Two local banks were accepting cash donations, and a website, www.pointwestbank.com, has a dedicated link that accepts donations to help rebuild the schools and the town.
Sykora, who’s also a deacon at St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption, said there was a brotherhood among the firefighters.
“To see young men we’ve known for so many years, men with families and children, lose their lives is just a heartbreak,” he said.
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