WEST, Texas – The First Baptist Church in the tiny Texas town where a fertilizer plant exploded is still off-limits, so the Rev. John Crowder put folding chairs in a hay pasture and improvised a pulpit on a truck flatbed. At the elementary school, an official carted extra desks and chairs into the only public school campus that’s left.
This was Sunday in West. Four days after the blast that killed 14 people and injured 200 others, residents prayed for comfort and got ready for the week ahead, some of them still waiting to find out when – or if – they will be able to go back home.
“We have lost our friends and neighbors. We lost the safety and comfort of our homes,” said Crowder, raising his voice over the whirr of helicopters surveying the nearby rubble from overhead. “But as scary as this is, we don’t have to be afraid.”
The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. rocketed shrapnel across several blocks and left what assistant state fire marshal Kelly Kirstner described Sunday as “a large crater.” A section of the flat farming town near the crater, including Crowder’s church, is still behind barricades.
One school campus was obliterated, and on the eve of 1,500 students returning to class for the first time since Wednesday’s blast, Superintendent Marty Crawford said the high school and middle school could also be razed.
Nearly 70 federal and state investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire that set off the explosion, Kirstner said. Authorities said there are no signs of criminal intent.
Robert Champion, the special agent in charge for the Dallas office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said experts plan to enter the crater in the next few days and start digging in search of an explanation.
“It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there,” Champion said.
Slow is the normal way of life in West. But the last several days for many of its 2,800 residents have melded into an anguishing and frustrating stretch of wait-and-hear – whether about the safety of family and friends, or the fate of their homes.
Six firefighters and four emergency medics were among the dead, and city officials announced that a memorial service would be held Thursday at Baylor University. At least one of the West volunteer firefighters who was killed, Joey Pustejovsky, was a member of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption that held a solemn first Mass since the blast.
Firefighters and emergency workers in bright yellow jackets kneeled in the pews as the Rev. Boniface Onjefu recalled driving toward the fire after the explosion rattled his house.
“I stopped at the nursing home,” Onjefu said. “I noticed a lot of people trapped. I assisted. I prayed with some and held the hands of some that needed comfort. I saw him in the eyes of everyone.”
Said Onjefu, “God heard our prayers and prevented another tank from exploding.”
Edi Botello, a senior at West High School, is Catholic but stood in a roadside pasture with friend Chelsea Hayes for the First Baptist Church service that drew more than 100 people.
“We needed this,” Botello said.
They wore gray “(hash)prayforwest” shirts that have become ubiquitous in the town. On the night of the explosion, Botello asked his mother if Hayes, who lived close to the plant, could come over. He said his mom still wonders what might have been if she had said no.
“Every time I close my eyes, all I can think about is the explosion,” Botello said. “People running around. People evacuating. There was one point I couldn’t even talk. I just stuttered.”
Wendy Castro, a clerk at a nearby Wal-Mart, was among the first allowed back into her home, which sits on the outmost edge of the barricaded area. Broken windows and screen doors twisted off hinges is about the worst damage in her neighborhood.
The streets look like a bad storm rumbled through, not the deadliest fertilizer plant explosion since 31 were killed in Toulouse, France, in 2001. Dozens of homes close to the blast — some of which were leveled — may not be accessible to owners for another week or more.
Among the scorched buildings in the shadow of the plant were the town’s high school and intermediate school.
Crawford said the track team probably would have been at the high school when the plant erupted if they hadn’t stopped to eat on their way back from a meet. On Sunday, he checked on volunteers furnishing three portable classrooms trucked to the elementary campus. Starting Monday, the school that usually has 350 students will be crowded with twice that.
Crawford noticed the proximity of the schools to the fertilizer plant when he came down from Dallas to interview for the superintendent job. “A red flag went up,” he said. Teachers are practiced in emergency drills and there’s an evacuation plan on paper in the district office.
Had the explosion happened hours earlier, Crawford is certain it would have made no difference.
“We would have tried our best,” Crawford said. “But I couldn’t see us being successful. I don’t have to describe to you in graphic detail what would have happened.”
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber