WEST — Day breaks here on a ghastly sight: A little town until now known for kolaches, polka and good times swarms with rescue workers pulling bodies from the rubble of a fertilizer plant and nearby apartment complex.
Thursday evening authorities began removing the bodies of what are expected to be 12 firefighters from the smoldering crater that was West Fertilizer Co. and more bodies of residents in the complex, said longtime West Justice of the Peace David Pareya.
The removal of the dead began in the evening with a private ceremony out of view of the media or public where other firefighters lined up as the bodies were brought out, Pareya said.
Authorities also found two bodies in the apartment complex, a man and woman whose names are being withheld pending notification of relatives. Rescuers haven’t yet been able to search the second floor of the complex, but expect to find two to three more bodies there, Pareya said.
Gov. Rick Perry declared a state disaster for this northern McLennan County town of 2,800. Some officials compared the scene to a war zone or the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
“It is by far one of, if not the worst, (disasters) we have seen in the state of Texas,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner.
Authorities continued to block residents from returning to their homes while investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Fire Marshal’s Office began the task of determining what caused the fire and explosion. The search for any possible survivors continued into darkness.
Pareya, who narrowly escaped serious injury in the explosion, prepared himself to sift through debris and possibly pronounce dead some of his good friends.
“I am probably going to know every one of them,” he said earlier Thursday.
He had just left his office Wednesday when he saw smoke coming from the fertilizer plant.
“I hadn’t even got my truck into gear yet when I felt like a huge wave of pressure and then boom, boom, boom, boom,” Pareya said.
He was a half-block from the plant and the explosion shattered the windows in his three-quarter-ton Chevrolet pickup. Seconds later, a large chunk of debris fell from the sky and crushed the cab of the truck.
Somehow, he escaped with minor cuts on his neck from the flying glass. Pareya’s home on North Reagan Street is close to the plant and heavily damaged.
“All I’ve got is the clothes I have on and what’s in my pockets,” Pareya said. “I haven’t even changed clothes.”
The tragedy captured the attention of leaders worldwide, including President Obama; Pope Francis; U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Houston; Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Dozens of police officers, firefighters, paramedics and Good Samaritans rushed to the scene Wednesday night as an outpouring of civilian support continued Thursday with blood drives, food and clothing donations, charity concerts, candlelight vigils and the establishment of makeshift shelters.
Outside Czech-American Restaurant on North Main Street, just outside the restricted zone, Michael Maler sat on a bench wrapped in a blanket Thursday morning.
He listed off the names of volunteer firefighters he said were still missing and struggled to imagine how the tragedy would affect his town.
“It’s never going to be the same again,” he said.
City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, a volunteer firefighter, is among the missing and presumed dead, employees of West’s Mayor Tommy Muska confirmed.
In the chaotic aftermath, some residents gathered in one place that provided a sense of peace — West Church of Christ.
Diane Parma, a member of the church, came to the sanctuary in the hours following the explosion and opened its doors.
“I just sat down and cried like a baby,” Parma said.
Around 75 to 100 people trickled in and out during the night, wanting to clean themselves of blood or dirt, using restrooms, and inquiring about loved ones they hadn’t been able to reach.
The church since has been turned into an overflow donation center for the neighboring West Community Center, the main treatment and shelter for evacuees.
Parma lives on West Rhonda Street, blocks from the fertilizer plant. She and her husband, Gary, haven’t been able to return since; all of the windows were blown out of their home.
“A fireball hit the house next door, and we don’t know if they were able to get out,” Parma said, becoming visibly upset. “The fire just went up so fast . . . one of the (firefighters) tried to save them, but it was too much.”
When Walter M. Reaves Jr. dug himself out of the wreckage in his heavily damaged home, he saw his back door lying on the front porch.
He quickly realized the only way for the door to have gotten there was to have flown through his house, directly over his head as he was reading on the couch, landing on the front porch.
“It was pretty frightening,” he said.
Many businesses on North Main had not yet opened Thursday morning, but several cars were parked outside Out West bar and restaurant, where owner Mike Hutyra was giving free breakfast sausages and drinks to residents displaced by the explosion.
“At least it gives them a place to stay warm and watch the news,” Hutyra said. “Basically the houses of the people who have been here are still intact. They can’t get in. All the windows are knocked out and all that and they just have them sealed off.”
Across the room, a group of people gathered around a television to hear the latest updates from Waco police. Among them were Jerry Willenborg and Dee Davlin, who were waiting to hear when they could return to their heavily damaged home about 200 yards from the fertilizer plant.
West students will resume classes on Monday, though damage to three district campuses will force students to relocate to different facilities, officials said.
West Independent School District board of trustees held an emergency meeting Thursday morning to determine an action plan, Superintendent Marty Crawford said.
Some students will attend neighboring Connally ISD, while some students will go to West Elementary School, which Crawford said was the only campus not affected by the explosion.
“Our goal for the next 30 days is to make sure (students) have a great experience, that we could put back a little normalcy and consistency in the kids’ lives,” Crawford said.
There are about 1,500 students in the district. Crawford said he has not been told that any student was injured or killed during the explosion, and that staff members have all been accounted for.
Staff writers Lowell M. Brown, Tommy Witherspoon, Regina Dennis and J.B. Smith contributed to this story.