Many unaccounted for victims located as search and rescue ends in West

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by MARCUS MOORE, MARJORIE OWENS & DAVID SCHECHTER

Bio | Email | Follow: @davidschechter

WFAA

Posted on April 19, 2013 at 9:08 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 12 at 2:57 AM

WEST, Texas -- Speaking at an evening news conference, county and state officials said the search and rescue operation in West is complete. 

They also backed off an earlier report from Sen. John Cornyn, who told the media that about 60 people remain unaccounted for after the West Fertilizer Co. exploded on Wednesday.

"It's a shocking number, but what people ought to realize is they're going to cross reference the unaccounted for with people who are in hospitals or perhaps staying with relatives or people who might have left town because their homes were destroyed," Cornyn said earlier. "So, hopefully that number will come way down, hopefully to zero."

That number did indeed come way down, said McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, who stood next to Gov. Rick Perry on Friday. The list of unaccounted for victims has dipped. Some were found in hospitals while others are simply displaced and haven't been able to touch base with loved ones. 

"There are people who do not have a home. They are living in a hotel, they are living down the road," said West Mayor Tommy Muska. "I do not have a home, I'm living a hotel. My cousins in Virgina do not know that." 

Cornyn said the number 60 was given during a briefing with the deputy state fire marshal and federal and local authorities. Felton said there was a good chance "we may end up with one or two missing." 

"This is a small community and the agencies that are in charge of search and rescue did a very thorough job," he said.

A final tally of fatalities and injuries has not been announced.

However, Sgt. Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, confirmed earlier that 12 bodies were recovered from the area near the blast in a morning conference. Reyes said the bodies were taken to a forensic lab in Dallas to be identified.

Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Roger Williams surveyed the site of the explosion Friday morning.

"It's shocking to see the extent to which the explosion flattened an apartment building, damaged houses in a large radius and took a concrete foundation and blew it hundreds of yards away," Cornyn said.

 

Also on Friday, Donald Adair, owner of the West Fertilizer Co., issued his first statement since the deadly blast, saying one of the men who died in the explosion was an employee. The victim was battling the blaze as a volunteer firefighter. 

"The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over. I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion. He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. I will never forget his bravery and his sacrifice, or that of his colleagues who rushed to the trouble."

"This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come," writes Adair, a lifelong West resident. 

 

Meanwhile, Reyes said authorities are still in search and rescue mode in West. Cornyn said crews are still searching the apartment complex "that was essentially flattened" in the blast.

Thursday, the State Firemen's and Marshal's Association confirmed 11 first responders, including EMS personnel, were killed in the explosion. 

Search and rescue crews have searched and cleared 150 buildings and Reyes confirmed 50 homes were destroyed in the explosion and its aftermath. Authorities said they planned to search and clear 25 remaining homes in the area.

Betty Tucker took it from all sides when the blast hit. Her husband was evacuated from the nursery home where lives. Tucker, meanwhile, was at home, three doors down. She was knocked to the ground.

And she owns the blown-out apartment complex near the West Fertilizer Co.

"We've lost a friend," she said. 

That friend, she fears, is the woman from apartment 106 who moved to West five years ago to be closer to her adult son. She believes, and prays, based on her own research that she is the only resident who did not make it out. 

"We cannot account for her," Tucker said. "It's very sad, because I've known her. 

Thursday, Dallas Fire-Rescue confirmed one of their own were among the causalities. Capt. Kenny Harris worked at Station 30 in Dallas but was a West resident. Harris responded to help West volunteer firefighters when he heard news of the fire Wednesday, said Lt. Joel Lavender, a spokesman with Dallas Fire-Rescue.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

In an interview with WFAA, Cornyn said that the tragedy has spurred questions over the safety of populated areas beings so close to facilities such as the fertilizer plant.

"So, hopefully, some good can come out of this terrible tragedy so that it can be averted in the future," he said.

And despite the world's attention, West is a tough place to keep down. 

"I am so glad to see you Betty," a friend said to Tucker. "I've been worried about you and Jake." 

After a generation in West, she knows tragedy will shape life for the next generation.

"We'll all grieve with each other. The ones we've lost. But I think we'll be able to go on and be a better community."

WFAA's Steve Stoler contributed to this report


Full statement from Adair Grain Inc., owner of the West Fertilizer Co.

This has been a terrible week for everyone in West, Texas and I want to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt sympathy for those affected and my appreciation for those who responded.

As a lifelong resident, my heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community. I know that everyone has been deeply affected by this incident. Loved ones have been injured or killed. Homes have been damaged or destroyed. Our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered.

The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over. I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion. He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. I will never forget his bravery and his sacrifice, or that of his colleagues who rushed to the trouble.

This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come.

My family and I can't express enough our deep appreciation for the loving service and selfless sacrifice from within and around our community responding to the urgent needs of those affected. I am proud to be associated with West Church of Christ, which has opened its doors to the State of Texas to provide grief counseling services. My family and I will continue to assist in relief efforts through our church family.

The genuine kindness we have witnessed will be the hallmark for all of our children's children.

Going forward, the owners and employees of Adair Grain and West Fertilizer Co. are working closely with investigating agencies. We are presenting all employees for interviews and will assist in the fact finding to whatever degree possible. We pledge to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community.

While the investigation continues, and out of respect for the investigative process, we will limit our comments during the weeks and months ahead.

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