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Residents return for look at Texas homes after blast

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The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early April 18, 2013. 
REUTERS/Mike Stone
The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early April 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

By Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Maria Garza

WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Officials began allowing some residents to return to their homes on Saturday for their first look at the damage three days after a deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer plant flattened sections of a small town.

JoAnn Nors, 70, worried about her cat, Princess, who had gone unfed since Nors and her husband, 77-year-old Ernest, fled after the explosion Wednesday night in West, about 80 miles south of Dallas.

"I left a pot of stew on the stove," she said as she waited in a line of cars for 1-1/2 hours to get inside the evacuated area. "I'm sure it smells bad now."

Authorities set a 7 p.m. CDT curfew for anyone who chose to stay overnight. They warned of broken nails and glass as potential hazards and a limited access to water and electricity.

The announcement came on a day when officials released few new details about the explosion that left a devastated landscape in West, known locally for its Czech heritage and kolache pastries.

Authorities said the death toll remained at 14 in a community of some 2,700 people, with 200 people injured.

"We do not know where the fire started (or) how the fire started, (and) we're looking at time lines to see when the fire started," said Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner.

The blaze and ensuing explosion at West Fertilizer Co, a privately owned retail facility, gutted a 50-unit apartment complex, demolished about 50 houses and battered a nursing home and several schools. Dozens more homes were reported to have been damaged.

Most of the confirmed dead were emergency personnel who responded to the fire and likely were killed by the blast, which was so powerful it registered as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.

Officials cautioned it would take time to restore normality.

"This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint," West Mayor Tommy Muska told several hundred people gathered for a town hall meeting.

NO FOUL PLAY

Authorities have said there was no indication of foul play, although the investigation continues.

The plant was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a risk management plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The company, which has fewer than 10 employees, had provided no contingency plan to the EPA for a major explosion or fire at the site.

Last year the fertilizer plant stored 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owned the West plant did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as required, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate - which can also be used to make bombs - unaware of any danger there.

"I know a lot of people are putting the blame on it," Danny Mynar, who farms about 2,000 acres outside West, said of the plant. "But it served a lot of ranchers and farmers."

Mynar's cousin is married to one of the plant operators who is presumed dead. The employee, Cody Dragoo, mixed the ammonium nitrate at the plant, said Mynar.

When the fire started, Dragoo, a volunteer firefighter, rushed to try to put it out. He has not been seen since, said Mynar.

"He was my best friend," Mynar said. "It is just a sad deal."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Maria Garza; editing by Xavier Briand; Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Corrie MacLaggan, Carey Gillam, Joshua Schneyer, Ryan McNeill, and Janet Roberts; Editing by Peter Cooney and Xavier Briand)

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