WEST, Texas — Two days after the explosion at a fertilizer plant in this town in Central Texas, the death still toll stood at 14, but with the search of damaged structures nearly finished by Friday afternoon, only a few people were still presumed missing, local and county officials said.
Earlier in the day, after he had toured the site, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that 60 people remained unaccounted for, an estimate that included many people who had been reported missing by relatives unable to locate them immediately after the blast. But Judge Scott Felton of McLennan County, who joined Gov. Rick Perry at an afternoon news conference, said that he would be "surprised if it's more than a few."
Perry said there was "absolute devastation" in the area around the fertilizer plant, adding, "It's going to be a long recovery."
Through the night and much of the day, the authorities removed bodies from the rubble, most of them firefighters and other emergency responders who were the first to arrive at the plant. One of them was Capt. Kenny Harris of the Dallas Fire-Rescue, a married father of three who had been off-duty when he learned of the fire and went there to help, a spokesman for Dallas Fire-Rescue said.
Sgt. Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that about 200 people were injured and that at least 50 homes were damaged by the explosion, which was caused by a fire inside the plant Wednesday evening. The plant is surrounded by houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, three schools and a nursing home.
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other federal agencies swarmed the remains of the plant on Friday. They focused on a pair of reinforced steel tanks that stored anhydrous ammonia, an inexpensive liquid fertilizer commonly used across rural America. Under some conditions, it can turn into flammable gas.
Last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Administration fined the plant, a retail and warehouse facility for grains and fertilizer, $10,000 for safety violations, citing inadequate markings on the tanks and deficient transportation plans for the fertilizer. Farmers hauled it away from the plant in tanks pegged to the backs of their pickup trucks. The fine was settled for $5,250, according to agency records.