West, Texas: A Week After the Blast

A memorial service at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., on April 25, 2013, for the firefighters who were killed in a blast at a Texas fertilizer plant last week Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

A week after it exploded, the former site of West Fertilizer is no longer a smoking heap of twisted metal and cinders, but it remains a crime scene. Much of the debris has been cleared and organized. The still-standing remnant of the side of the tank that had once held ammonium nitrate—the likely cause of the blast—still looms over the blast crater, collapsed in on itself like a ribbon, but several car-hood-size bits have been pulled off to one side of the site. A train car that had been parked next to the plant on a railroading siding that was knocked over by the blast is covered in blue tarp, like a body. On Wednesday morning, from a helicopter circling the site at 400 feet, one could watch an excavator carefully paw the ground inside the crater, smoothing it out, and a line of men in yellow vests and hard hats turning the dirt with shovels.

Before President Barack Obama attended a memorial service for the 15 victims in nearby Waco on Thursday, the view from his helicopter, which circled the blast site, was similar.

The ATF and Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office say the investigation is likely to continue into early next week. They have yet to announce what the trigger for the blast was but have ruled out natural causes—a lightning strike, for example. According to Kelly Kistner, the assistant state fire marshal, that leaves three other possibilities: accidental, intentional, and (least satisfying) undetermined. On Tuesday he emphasized that they had also ruled out the rail car itself as the blast’s epicenter, squelching speculation that erupted when the chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who is not involved with the investigation, said the cause was “likely possibly a rail car with ammonium nitrate in it.”

Meanwhile, some parts of the town have begun to regain some semblance of normalcy. On Wednesday, water came back on and garbage pickup resumed in those neighborhoods farthest from the blast. The Joint Assistance Center (JAC), in the old Knights of Columbus Hall, was much less crowded than it had been over the weekend, as some people went back to work and kids went back to school. The volunteers and staffers there—from the Red Cross, the Texas Department of Insurance, the United Services Automobile Association, the AFL-CIO, and various ministries—now outnumber the locals.

For those who lived closest to the plant, though, the rebuilding process can’t begin until they can actually get back to their houses and assess the damage—and learn whether there’s anything to be salvaged. For others, the road back will be even longer: Daniel Geraci, director of the Austin Disaster Relief Network, an alliance of churches, was manning a table on Tuesday at the JAC. He says his volunteers spoke with a family that had been in one of the homes nearest the fertilizer plant. Out of four members of the family, three lost their sight to shards of glass as the windows blew inward from the blast.

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