WEST, Texas — After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball will be allowed to go home, a town official said Saturday.
The news came after a nervous day in which 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 midday news conference.
A group of residents in a small area would be let back in later Saturday afternoon, he said, but he 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.
Evacuated residents have waited anxiously to return and assess what remains to roughly 80 damaged homes after the blast Wednesday night at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 14 and injured 200 more.
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. He said they were small and were contained, and didn’t cause further injuries.
“The whole place is still on fire, smoldering, all that kind of stuff. It could spark up,” Reed said. But, he cautioned, “There isn’t really enough structure left to light up and burn.”
Reed described dozens of portable, white tanks at the site that are typically filled with anhydrous ammonia from larger storage tanks for when farmers request them. The tanks get weak when they are exposed to fire and bleed, he said.
The tanks are attached to plows pulled by tractors and feed streams of the chemical into the ground as the plow passes to fertilize.