Residents returning after West explosion wonder how -- or if -- they can rebuild
By SARAH MERVOSH
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS / April 23, 2013
WEST — When the ceiling collapsed in Jessica Urban’s childhood bedroom, the glow-in-the-dark star stickers fell with it.
Those little plastic stars are now among the rubble that crunches beneath her feet when she walks through the small back bedroom in her parents’ home, just a half-mile from the fertilizer plant that exploded last week.
Monday was the first full day that residents were allowed back into an evacuated area known as Phase 2. These are houses that were far enough from West Fertilizer Co. to remain standing after the huge explosion, but close enough to have sustained staggering damage.
And that’s far from the worst of it. Authorities say at least 50 houses closer to the plant — most in Phase 3 of the evacuated area — are so badly damaged as to be uninhabitable. There’s been no word on when those residents will be allowed in to see the devastation.
In all, officials said, there are about 350 homes in the evacuated area. On Saturday, people started returning to the blocks farthest from the blast site, in Phase 1.
There is no running water anywhere in the evacuation zone, and it might be that way for up to three weeks. Some homes have electricity; some have natural gas. Many have neither.
In the neighborhood reopened Monday, nearly every home was missing windows and most garage doors hung off their hinges.
Residents found disarray at every turn: broken glass and chunks of drywall everywhere, food and clothes likely contaminated by noxious chemicals.
Those who went home to gather personal belongings and take baby steps toward a cleanup were forced to consider how — or if — they would fully recover.
‘My little home’
Joseph and Linda Urban have lived in their brick ranch house on North Main Street since 1980. They raised their daughters there. Now they don’t know when they’ll be able to go home for good.
“I love this place — my little baby, my little home,” said Joseph Urban, standing in the living room, where the ceiling had fallen onto the couch and shards of glass had been driven into the old yellow carpet. In the kitchen, stray spice bottles and shattered drinking glasses littered the floor.
“Well, you know, there ain’t nothing you can do about it,” said Urban, who wore a plaid shirt, thin-rimmed glasses and a Ford Racing cap.
His family came home to pack up items that had been protected inside cabinets, dresser drawers or closets. Everything else, they were warned, could be contaminated.
Out of habit, Linda Urban ran a rag over a wooden piano bench, clearing the dust so she could sit down.
“That ain’t gonna do you much good,” her husband said, chuckling.
The Urbans are both in their 60s and retired. Even with insurance, he wonders how they’ll be able to rebuild on their fixed income.
“Are we going to be able to make it?” he wondered.
Their daughter Jessica, 27, wore gloves, a face mask and clothes she picked up from the city’s donation center. She said it’s been humbling to have to accept the charity of others in the wake of the explosion.
Still, she considers her family lucky.
“People have gone through much worse,” she said.
The glass will be swept away. The cracked ceiling will be fixed, the broken windows replaced.
Inside Robert and Betty Neill’s kitchen cabinet, though, there’s a dinner plate that will always be chipped.
The plate is painted with fruit, in the mustard and olive tones favored in the 1970s. It’s cheap and lightweight, from someplace like Wal-Mart. But it’s the last remaining one from the first set that the Neills bought as a couple, 40-odd years ago.
“I guess I’m going to keep it like it is anyway,” Robert Neill said, placing it gently back in the cabinet.
His children popped in and out of the house throughout the day as the family worked to clean up. He watched as his wife inspected their backyard garden of cucumbers, tomatoes and squash. He was glad the plants survived.
Church bells rang. The Neills looked at the clock: Noon. Time for a lunch break.
They went outside. Across the street was the high school football field, the initial triage center for the wounded on the night of the blast.
“That’s where all our blankets went,” Neill said.
Lending a hand
The returning residents weren’t alone.
Alan Straley of San Antonio came to help, part of his church’s emergency relief ministry. He and two other men sawed plywood outside one home so they could board up windows.
“They’re humans and I’m human, and that’s what they need right now — humanity,” said Straley, 45.
“You can’t expect to get help if you don’t give it.”
A Waco couple who own a window company hitched a trailer full of supplies to their Lexus SUV, wrote their phone number in the window and drove around looking for homes to weatherproof.
Vicki Mercer said she and her husband were happy to help. But she was discouraged to see the number of windows and doors that were blown out.
“You look at our little trailer, and it’s like, my God, this isn’t nearly enough,” she said.
On the corner
Across from West High School, where the gym roof was caved in, one little house on the corner was particularly hard hit.
Through the jagged glass of a broken window, a wrecked living room was visible. Kitchen chairs had toppled onto a checkered couch. But a decorative wooden sign still hung on one wall: “Ice cream cones, 10¢.”
The garage had collapsed on the car inside. The front-door screen had popped out and was crumpled like paper.
A police officer dropped by and took a look around.
“It’s a mess, isn’t it?” he said.