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A 'Long, Long' Recovery for West, Texas


WEST, Texas (USAToday)Students are back in class, homes are being rebuilt and, at least on the surface, normalcy appears to be returning to this battered town six months after one of the worst chemical blasts in U.S. history.

But there is a lingering unease.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. depot occurred six months ago last Thursday. A fire inside a storage building reached a store of ammonium nitrate and triggered the blast, killing 15 people, including 10 first responders. More than 200 were injured, and 161 homes were wiped out.

For miles, the blast blew out windows and tossed people to the ground. It left a crater 90 feet across and 10 feet deep and caused more than $200 million in damage.

Firefighter Robert Payne had nerve damage to his right shoulder, a broken left ankle, broken ribs, broken cheek bones and five teeth blown out.

"The city in general is recuperating," Payne says. "Mentally, it's going to take a long, long time."

The state fire marshal and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still investigating.

How the incident changes the way ammonium nitrate is regulated in the USA remains to be seen. Ammonium nitrate is a widely used fertilizer but can also be used as an explosive.

In 1995, Timothy McVeigh packed more than 2,000 pounds of it into a truck bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

West Fertilizer had 540,000 pounds on site four months before the blast, state records show.

This month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company's owners with 24 "serious safety violations."

Sixteen lawsuits have been filed against Adair Grain, which owns the fertilizer depot. Company owner Donald Adair declined to comment.

Reminders are everywhere here. West Fertilizer was razed. Homes are in rubble or hollowed-out ruin. Others have work crews out front.

The blast blew out all the windows and popped the roof off Robert Seith's home two blocks from the fertilizer company. Insurance covered $95,000 of the $150,000 in damage. He was recently approved for a low-interest loan by the Small Business Administration to cover the gap. He plans to rebuild on the place where he and his two siblings were raised.

Seith, 48, and his wife, Kim, have been living in his sister's RV. "I'm ready to come home," he says.

The city has issued 150 building permits for new and remodeled homes, says Mayor Tommy Muska, whose house was badly damaged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid $700,000 in grants for city repairs.

"One of our biggest challenges is keeping morale up and making sure these people are mentally taken care of," Muska says.

West Long-Term Recovery, created to help blast victims, has seen a steady influx of people complaining of hyperventilation, short tempers and personality changes, Executive Director Karen Bernsen says.

Bernsen says the symptoms could be brought on by stress, but she worries they might be from undiagnosed brain damage or internal injuries.

A counseling center organized by Baylor University closed recently because of a lack of clients, but people are just now seeking help, she says. "Now everybody needs it, and it's gone."

Reliving the Nightmare
The fire call went out just before 7:30 p.m. on April 17. Payne, 51, was on vacation and had turned his pager off. A relative called with the news. He headed to the depot in his wife's SUV.

When fire officials saw how fast the fire was spreading, they pulled everyone back.

There Payne's memory cuts out.

The blast had the force of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT and registered as a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

It threw Payne 25 feet into the air and deposited him in a cattle feed tank. He spent two days in intensive care and two more weeks in the hospital. He still has therapy on his arm.
He knows others are worse off.

"It was awful," Payne says. "But we're a stronger and closer-knit community because of it."


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