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After a fatal fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night, the mayor of West, Texas, and his small town have been resilient in the face of tragedy.
“We’re going to fight back just like we always do,’’ Mayor Tommy Muska told Matt Lauer on TODAY Friday. “We’re going to get these houses rebuilt. This is a wonderful community. We’re going to get everything back to order one of these days.”
Officials have confirmed 12 people have died and more than 200 others were injured in the blast that occurred at 8 p.m. local time Wednesday in West, which is just north of Waco. Steve Vanek, the mayor pro tem of West and a volunteer firefighter as well, told Lauer five volunteer firefighters from West lost their lives, including brothers Bob and Doug Snokhous.
"It's hard,'' Vanek told Lauer. "We are just going to console them and be with them as much as we can, not for the next few days, but for the months and years to come because we know all these people.''
Firefighter Perry Calvin, 37, died in the blaze, leaving behind two young sons and a pregnant wife who is due on Thanksgiving. Kenny Harris, a Dallas firefighter who lived in West, also died when he responded to the explosion while off duty.
“I’ve been crying a lot with a lot of people and I’ve been praying a lot with a lot of people,’’ Muska said.
The blast leveled a five- to six-block radius around the plant with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, wrecking an estimated 50 to 75 homes and a middle school. A 50-unit apartment complex nearby had its roof peeled off and the walls obliterated.
“The apartment complex looks like it was a bombing site of an explosion, the kind that you see in Baghdad,’’ Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said at a news conference.
Searching the apartment complex has become a priority in Friday's recovery efforts, with heavy machinery being brought in to safely remove the wreckage and search for any possible survivors, according to Vanek.
Muska hopes to allow those evacuated from their homes to return quickly to inspect the damage. His own home suffered extensive damage that has left several parts of it exposed to the air.
“We’re going to finish the recovery process hopefully today,’’ Muska said. “I want to get the people back in their homes to find out what they have. We don’t know what’s in our homes.’’
As residents face the rebuilding process, they also are trying to come to grips with the ordeal. An interfaith service at St. Mary's Assumption Catholic Church in West on Thursday night drew a crowd of about 1,400 -- nearly half the town. Pope Francis also sent out a tweet Thursday asking everyone to join him in praying for the victims of the explosion and their families.
"They're going through the stages of grief,'' Father Ed Karasek of St. Mary's told Lauer on Friday. "Reality is going to set in. The anger, the depression -- it's going to be hard to sleep. They have to recover and support one another.''
"The biggest thing we need is prayer,'' Rev. John Crowder, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in West, told Lauer. "When the media goes away and the attention goes away, don't forget us. Keep praying for us, because this is going to be a long, long process."
The town has been overwhelmed with donations, and Muska said they don’t need any more items such as diapers, but may need financial donations to replace three of the town’s vehicles that were destroyed in the explosion. The town is down to two trucks, and supplies to rebuild homes are a primary concern right now.
“We may need plywood instead of diapers,’’ Muska said.
"Many of us have not seen our homes yet,'' Crowder said. "When we can get in there, that's when we're going to need help cleaning up and figuring out, 'Is this house safe?' and putting our lives back together.''
The plant contained 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, but the cause of the explosion is unknown. Authorities believe it was an accident rather than foul play.
“That plant had been here forever,’’ Muska said. “We’re a rural community. That’s part of our lives is the crops and fertilizing the crops, and you have to have that, so you don’t pay a second (of) mind to it until a tragedy like this happens.”