WEST, Texas - After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball Wednesday were allowed to go home Saturday to find out what remained.
The news came after a nervous day where 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 said the town was safe.
"It is safe, safe and safe," City Council member Steve Vanek said emphatically at a news conference.
He said that a group of residents in a small area would be let back in later Saturday afternoon, but gave no indication about when all evacuated residents could return. Those being let back in would be subject to an evening curfew, and were warned to stay in their homes.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said Saturday night that there's no sign of criminal activity in the explosion. Kistner said four tanks at the site that contain ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia would be removed to safeguard workers, but he stressed to reporters there was no danger to citizens.
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. Cars allowed in were tagged.
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 are hoping to find key documents such as insurance papers and family records to help with recovery. Others simply hope to reclaim any belongings that might be buried under splintered homes.
At the hotel where evacuees huddled, Bryce Reed, a paramedic and spokesman for the town of West, told residents Saturday morning that small tanks were leaking and had triggered small fires in one part of the town. He said they were small and were contained, and didn't cause further injuries.