As rescue workers searched for victims of the fatal explosion at a Central Texas fertilizer plant, Galveston County residents reached out to check on their family members in the small town of West.
Meanwhile, local first responders were called upon by the state to help if needed in the search and rescue effort while people organized fundraisers and other ways to help the victims of the fatal blast.
Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thursday for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris and for the dead.
Initial reports put the number of fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.
Searchers “have not gotten to the point of no return where they don’t think that there’s anybody still alive,” Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.
Checking on loved ones
There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewed with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.
Former County Commissioner Eddie Janek grew up on a farm outside of West and has several cousins in the town of about 2,800 people that’s near Waco.
“From what I have been able to gather is that one of my cousins had her house destroyed,” Janek said. “I haven’t been able to find out if they are OK or not.”
He said a couple of his family members live within a couple hundred yards of the plant where the explosion occurred. Another cousin’s son is a volunteer firefighter in West and is among the missing, Janek said.
Janek said he spoke with other family members who live in the area and they are fine, but they, too, were unable to confirm the health of those family members who live in West.
“I was shocked, really shocked,” Janek said.
Aunt pulled from debris
Dickinson native Betsy Quin said her 92-year-old aunt Rosalie Walla was in the West Rest Haven Nursing Home just blocks from the plant. The roof of the center collapsed.
“She was pulled through the window from under debris,” Quinn said. “She is cut up and scared but good. Everyone is being great and helping.”
Quin turned to social media to get what information she could.
“It is still a bit chaotic and getting information is difficult,” she said. “Getting news was the most difficult because the big media wasn’t covering the story, and what they did cover was not always accurate. I learned more through Facebook.”
Santa Fe resident Walter Bozeman also relied on Facebook to check on the condition of relatives in West. He said he was unaware of the massive blast until he read about it Thursday morning in The Daily News. He immediately went to Facebook and sent his cousin Jaye Pate Meurer a message.
Meurer lives about 9 miles from the plant with her husband and children. Meurer’s in-laws also live in West, Bozeman said.
“She responded back that she and the family were OK,” Bozeman said. “That’s about all I’ve been able to find out from her so far.”
First responders head to disaster zone
Galveston fire Chief Jeff Smith said the state activated Texas Task Force 1, the state’s mutual aid task force. Galveston assistant fire Chief Mike Wisko was in West as a member of the task force, Smith said.
“All Texas Fire Departments with state fire assets go on standby,” Smith said. “Galveston Fire Department has a state truck (and) we are on standby to either respond or backfill regional departments. I do not expect a call for GFD equipment. But we were prepared to assist the state.”
Authorities in West said blast victims were transported to hospitals across the state.
As of Thursday, none were reported to have been transported to the University of Texas Medical Branch’s John Sealy Hospital or the Blocker Burn Unit, spokeswoman Molly Dannenmaier said.
Local drives announced
The devastation in West prompted some residents to launch care drives to help those in need.
The Dickinson High School Gatorzillas Robotics Team set up its competition trailer Thursday at the high school and will be there until 8 a.m. Saturday,
“Our team will be taking clothing, canned goods, water, (over-the-counter) medications, diapers, personal care items, etc., to the town,” team mother Faith McNabb said.
The team plans to load the trailer and head to Central Texas on Saturday.
Students at Texas City High School also announced a donation effort.
Young Americans for Liberty and Spanish National Honor Society are collecting canned food, bottled water, paper plates, paper towels, plastic utensils and personal hygiene items, district spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said. The effort started Thursday and will continue at the high school today during school hours and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The American Red Cross activated its disaster response teams and set up a shelter in West. The Galveston County Red Cross was on standby should a call come for help, Dena Mahan, the League City Emergency Management Coordinator and the president of the local Red Cross Community Advisory Board, said.
The Lighthouse Charity Team was also gearing up for a possible trek to West. The 200-member team activated to help provide supplies and meals to firefighters and rescue volunteers during the fires in Central Texas last year.