Investigators Search For Clues In Texas Plant Explosion

In West, Texas, the site of that huge explosion at a fertilizer plant, authorities still will not say how many people are believed dead. Plus, they have not given any indication about what caused the fire that was burning at the plant before the blast.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's turn now, briefly, to West, Texas, the scene of this week's fertilizer plant explosion. Many questions remain unanswered there. In fact, it's still hard to estimate how many people were killed. We do know that regulators had a few concerns with this plant in the past, though it's not clear if anybody questioned the plant's location near homes and a school.

And amid all these questions, the people of West are picking up and taking stock. Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

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WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: A small town that's been devastated by some natural or not so natural disaster often has the feeling of a place under military siege. Helicopters circle endlessly overhead. Police officers are everywhere. And whether it's a category four hurricane or an F3 tornado or a small fertilizer plant that goes off like a hydrogen bomb, there's always glass everywhere, ready to slice into your shoes, your ankles, your tires - calamity taking one last nasty bow.

On Wednesday night just before eight, Larry Marek was sitting on the couch with his pregnant wife and their four-year-old daughter. They were watching TV when something made Marek stand up. Then, silently, the fertilizer plant explosion's shockwave slammed into the house, blowing the outside doors inward.

LARRY MAREK: Nothing like I'd ever felt before. I mean, it pushed me back because I was standing up. And all the doors in the house came open. I mean, it broke our windows on inside doors.

GOODWYN: Marek's wife and daughter were lifted off the couch. A second later, the sound of the blast, devastatingly loud, a one-two punch that had their hearts in their throats. He yelled at his wife and child to run for the bedroom. He had guessed there was a terrible gas leak and that his neighbor's house had exploded.

MAREK: First thing I did was run and turn my gas off.

GOODWYN: The catastrophe then tried its hand at comedy. Marek stood in his hallway shaking, when he slowly realized he was looking across the street into his neighbor's house and they were in the foyer too, looking back at him. In an instant the neighborhood had been turned into a collective of voyeurs, front doors at their feet.

MAREK: When I went outside, I saw all my neighbors coming outside. And they didn't know what was going on; their doors and windows had been blown off.

GOODWYN: Property damage can be a terrible blow. But for the families of the brave volunteer firemen who gave their lives, there's shock and grief and life-changing loss. For four blocks around the fertilizer plant, the homes and apartment buildings are turned to rubble.

Authorities say they're still searching for the living and so are unwilling to count the dead, holding out hope that the many missing are still just that. But as the hours tick by, the likelihood is that the truth is much harsher. After all, the explosion was so powerful it was felt in Ft. Worth 80 miles away.

GREG ABBOTT: I just toured the site both from the air and from the ground. The area around the site is just total devastation.

GOODWYN: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott saw for himself what is left of West. One large apartment complex right next to the plant was ripped opened like a gutted fish.

ABBOTT: The apartment complex looks like it was a bombing site, the kind that you see in Baghdad.

GOODWYN: Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are now on the scene and well into their investigation. They say they're treating the plant as a crime scene, but that's just to be on the safe side. For the citizens of West, the blast was an unwelcome wake-up call.

Although the plant was not large, railroad cars full of highly toxic and highly combustible material rolled in and out for decades. Almost nobody gave it a thought; the plant had been there forever. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, in the town of West, Texas.

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