WEST, Texas - After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a Texas fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball were allowed to go home Saturday to find out what remained.
The news came after a nervous day where West officials told residents packed in a hotel waiting for updates about their neighborhood that leaking gas tanks were causing small fires near the blast site, keeping authorities from lifting blockades. But officials emphasized that the fires were contained and the town was safe.
"It is safe, safe and safe," City Council member Steve Vanek said emphatically at a news conference.
He said residents in a small area would be let back in later Saturday afternoon, but did not indicate when all evacuated residents could return.
Residents with homes inside the zone were told to assemble at a designated location and show identification. As the hour when the area was to be opened neared, residents and insurance agents formed a mile-long line of cars. Law enforcement checked the IDs of each person inside.
Some who do not live in the designated area were turned away. Police used soap to number the windshields of cars allowed into the area.
Evacuated residents had been anxiously waiting to return and assess what is left of roughly 80 damaged homes after the blast Wednesday night at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 14 and injured 200 more. The blast scarred a four-to-five block radius that included a nursing home, an apartment building and a school.
Many hope to find insurance papers and family records to help with recovery. Others simply wish to reclaim any belongings that might be buried under splintered homes.
During a town hall meeting Saturday, Mayor Tommy Muska apologized for failing to communicate with residents, telling them he was focused on technical aspects of the situation.
He said the damage northwest of the site is the worst. "When you see this place you will know a miracle happened," Muska told the town hall crowd.
Those being allowed in are only to collect a few belongings, he said, adding there's no water or gas and just a little electricity.
The mayor said "it's devastating" closer to the blast area, which is where his family lives.
"I've seen our neighborhood and it's not really pretty," Muska said. "This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint."