A town copes with lives lost in Texas blast

CNN News Service | 4/21/2013, 5 p.m.

WEST, Texas -- Since they were little boys growing up West, Texas, brothers Doug and Robert Snokhous did everything together. They fixed cars, went hunting, golfed and barbecued together. It just made sense that they would both become volunteer firefighters, and that they were side by side last Wednesday when they rushed to a fire at the West Fertilizer Co.

The brothers were among 14 people who died after the fire led to a massive explosion at the distributor. The blast decimated not only the company's building but ravaged practically the entire north side of the small farming community.

The nine first-responders from West who died battling the blaze represented nearly one-third of the town's volunteer firefighting and EMT force. The fire destroyed three fire trucks and an ambulance.

Firefighters and trucks from neighboring communities now fill the void at the West firehouse.

Among the others who rushed to the fire and lost their lives: Kenneth "Luckey" Harris Jr., a 52-year-old Dallas firefighter who lives in West, and two friends of first responders whose identities have not been confirmed by authorities.

Two other people were killed in their apartment nearby.

By Monday afternoon, a Facebook page "Prayers for West" had been "liked" nearly 80,000 times.

Besides offering thoughtful messages, the page served as a kind of bulletin board for people in West trying to coordinate donations and help each other.

Reporters have been given access to the devastated area. It resembles the wake of a tornado -- trees are uprooted, an apartment building's walls are blown off, and enormous chunks of concrete litter the surrounding fields.

The disaster has rocked the community and, even in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombings, which have received the lion's share of media coverage this past week, it has reverberated throughout the country.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will go to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on Thursday to attend a memorial service for the victims of the blast, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

Townspeople devastated and displaced
At the time of the blast, West Fertilizer Co. was closed for business, so there were no workers inside, officials said.

The explosion injured hundreds of people who lived near the distributor, authorities said, and others were without a place to live because the blast damaged their homes. West's high school and middle school were damaged.

Investigators searched for clues Monday morning in the 22-foot-deep crater left when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded.

At a Monday afternoon press conference Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner told reporters that officials are confident the neighborhood near the site of the explosion is safe. Several authorities spoke at the news conference but offered few details about the investigation, noting that they are being methodical and that the probe will take time.

At a news conference Sunday evening, officials said determining how many volatile chemicals were in the facility will be difficult because the company's records were destroyed in the blast. They are attempting to find the records elsewhere.