Emergency teams bear brunt of Texas blast toll

Firefighters conduct a search of an apartment complex destroyed by the explosion. Picture: AP Photo/LM Otero

Firefighters conduct a search of an apartment complex destroyed by the explosion. Picture: AP Photo/LM Otero

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THE bodies of 14 people have been recovered from the remnants of a tiny Texas farm town that was rocked by an ­explosion at a fertiliser plant, authorities said yesterday.

Ten of the dead were emergency workers – including five from the West volunteer fire department and four emergency medics, West’s mayor ­Tommy Muska said.

Days after the West Fertilizer Co plant exploded, grieving relatives filed into a church offering comfort for families, as volunteers nearby handed out food to those still unable to return to homes damaged by the massive blast.

On Friday, US president Barack Obama declared an emergency and pledged federal disaster relief aid to help West recover. After addressing the arrest of the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect on Friday night, the president ­extended his sympathies to everyone affected by the Texan blast and vowed that the community would get the resources it needed to rebuild.

“Our thoughts, our prayers are with the people of West, Texas, where so many good people lost their lives, some lost their homes, many were injured, many are still missing,” Obama said. Following a tour of the wreckage on Friday, Texas governor Rick Perry told reporters the search-and-rescue phase for anyone still trapped was all but finished. He said the state would offer help to the 29-member local fire department that had been “basically wiped out” He added: “To the first-responders [emergency personnel who arrived first on the scene], I cannot say thank you enough.”

In a town of just 2,800 people, everyone in West knew someone directly affected by the disaster.

Officials offered reassurances on Friday about the 60 or so people listed as unaccounted for after the blast. McLennan County judge Scott Felton said many people on the list probably lost their homes and have simply been difficult to locate since the blast on Wednesday evening.

The fertiliser plant stored and distributed anhydrous ammonia, a highly hazardous chemical that can be injected into soil, and also mixed other fertilisers.

Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he would never forget the “selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us”. One of the plant employees was also killed res­ponding to the fire, Adair said. Federal investigators and the state fire marshal’s office began inspecting the blast site on Friday to collect evidence that may point to a cause.

Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators were still combing through the debris yesterday. Residents cannot return to their homes until they are finished, Perot said. She could not say when that might be.

Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who toured West on Friday, said they would wait for more information about the explosion before considering whether there should be more regulation of anhydrous ammonia. Authorities said they were continuing to treat the blast site as a crime scene, although they said they strongly suspected the explosion was the result of an industrial accident.

The disaster has forever changed the town. An apartment complex was torn apart, a school set ablaze and a nursing home left in ruins. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all the windows were blown out, and its cafeteria destroyed.

The dead included Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary who doubled as a member of the volunteer fire department. A captain of the Dallas fire department, who was off-duty at the time but who volunteered to help fight the blaze, also died.

The explosion was strong enough to register as a small earthquake and could be heard for many miles across the 
Texas prairie. It demolished nearly everything for several blocks around the plant. More than 200 people were hurt, and mayor Muska said five emergency workers were among those still in hospital.

The teams “knew it was dangerous. They knew that thing could go up at any time,” said Ronnie Sykora, who was Pustejovsky’s deacon at St Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church. “But they also knew that if they could extinguish that fire before it went up, that they could save tens of lives, hundreds of lives. That’s why they were in there.”

Brian Uptmor, 37, said his brother disappeared after he went towards the fire on Wednesday night to try to save horses in a nearby field.

William “Buck” Uptmor, 44, has not been found among the injured at local hospitals, has not answered his cell phone and his truck has not moved from where he left it.

“[My brother] is dead. We don’t know where his body is,” said Uptmor, a former firefighter. “[His death] will probably hit me at the funeral.”

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