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14 bodies recovered, 60 unaccounted for after Texas blast

Posted at 9:16 PM, Apr 19, 2013

By Faith Karimi and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

(CNN) — Two days after a massive fertilizer plant fire and explosion leveled parts of their town and killed 14 people — decimating the volunteer firefighter force — residents of West, Texas, began moving into recovery mode Friday after investigators announced they had nearly finished search and rescue efforts.

“It’s going to be a long recovery for this community,” Gov. Rick Perry told reporters Friday.

The death toll rose to 14 on Friday, which included the city secretary, who was also on the city of West’s 29-member volunteer fire department, said Mayor Tommy Muska, also a volunteer firefighter. In total, five West firefighters died battling the blaze, along with one Dallas firefighter and four emergency responders, the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas said Thursday.

“It’s devastating. I’ve been a member of the firefighters for 26 years,” Muska said. “These guys are my friends.”

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air. Muska rushed to the scene to assist in crowd control about 1.5 blocks from the plant. The explosion, which registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake, blew his hat off, he said.

It also destroyed his home, he said, making him one of many in the small town of 2,800 to be displaced in the blast’s aftermath. Many, including Muska, are staying in hotels or with friends, he said.

The destruction made it hard to account for exactly how many people had been displaced, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said Friday. He estimated that 99% of people originally thought to be missing had been accounted for.

Felton and Muska joined Perry in thanking volunteers from across the state who came to assist in cleanup. They also expressed gratitude for donations of food and clothes but said they were running out of places to store them and asked that people instead donate money through the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

“We’ve hit the saturation point on receiving stuff, clothes, food, those kind of things, and we’re running out of places to put it,” Felton said.

It’s still unclear what caused the blast, which Brad Smith felt in his home 50 miles away.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” Smith said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ ”

Local authorities are still working with federal officials, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to determine the cause of the deadly explosion, Perry said.

It’s unclear whether the plant had safety problems. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Seven years ago, the company had a complaint against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

The blast came as the nation remained on edge after the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday that killed three and left about 180 injured. It happened two days before Friday’s 20th anniversary of a fire in Waco that ended a federal agents’ siege against members of the Branch Davidian sect. More than 80 sect members and some federal agents died.

What’s clear, though, is the blast stunned residents of this town about 75 miles south of Dallas and about 20 miles north of Waco and left behind a trail of charred devastation.

Perry surveyed the scene from a helicopter and on the ground.

“We are blessed we didn’t lose more people than we actually did,” Perry said.

CNN’s Elizabeth Landau, Greg Botelho, Josh Levs and Lateef Mungin contributed to this report.