WEST, Tex. — Hundreds of residents of this close-knit Texas town sought healing at a church service Sunday, while schools were readied to reopen and authorities investigated the cause of last week’s deadly fertilizer plant blast.
About 200 residents in the town of West, Texas — including farmers, veterans and migrant workers — packed the Catholic Church of the Assumption in the center of the town for Mass early Sunday.
The Rev. Boniface Onjefu offered prayers for the 14 dead, among them volunteer firefighters and emergency workers, and nearly 200 injured in the explosion that smashed several city blocks.
“West is a strong city,” Onjefu told the congregation that filled the church, its altar decorated with white blossoms.
Residents of the tiny town, about 80 miles south of Dallas and less than 20 miles north of Waco, stood together “in these trying moments,” he said.
“Let us be strong and move our beloved city ahead. God is with us. God bless us,” Onjefu said.
The fire and ensuing explosion at West Fertilizer Co., a privately owned retail facility, gutted a 50-unit apartment complex, demolished about 50 houses and battered a nursing home and several schools. Dozens more homes were reported to have been damaged.
The cause of the blast, which was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, remains under investigation. Neither the cause nor the location of the fire that preceded it have been determined, investigators say.
Power, water and gas are still turned off in blast-ravaged parts of the city of 2,700 residents, which remains under a curfew at 7 p.m. Central time. Mayor Tommy Muska said an area school would reopen Monday with some students in temporary classrooms.
A memorial service for the first responders who died will be held in Waco at 2 p.m. Central time on Thursday.
Some of those evacuated from a devastated area north of the historic downtown have been allowed to go home but only to retrieve a few belongings. Muska warned that the recovery will “be a marathon, not a sprint.”
Larry Kaska, who lost his home on the north side of town, said the Mass led by Onjefu at the brick church brought “some healing” to residents as they started to rebuild their shattered lives.
“We’re turning . . . getting back to some normalcy again,” said Kaska, who is now living at his nephew’s home. “Just hearing his prayers and comfort, and that people are being supportive . . . help you out.”
Authorities have said there was no indication of foul play at the plant. It was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a risk management plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
For some at the church service, it was too early to speak of healing. Among them was Silvestre Duran, a Mexican migrant whose care-worker wife, Lucy, was injured when the blast tore through the nursing home where she worked.
“It will take time, a lot of people have memories that will be with them for a long time,” Duran said, noting that his wife has had flashbacks since the blast.
“I’m doing a little better, but still dealing with the memories,” Lucy said, speaking in Spanish. She was wrapped up against the slight chill in a black shawl, her face marked by burns and multiple stitches in her right ear.
Their daughter, who also worked at the nursing home, was also injured in the explosion.
Another churchgoer, who identified himself only as a farmer who had lived in West all his life, was struggling to come to terms with the toll on the town.
“I lost three of my best friends. . . . I should have been maybe there with” them, he said, clearly shaken. “I just consider myself and my family blessed. . . . If you don’t have faith in the good Lord, you have nothing.”