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Tears, prayers as Texas blast mourned

19 April 2013, 10:30

West - With prayers, tears, and candles, residents of this tiny Texas town mourned those killed by an explosion at a fertiliser plant as crews searched the smoking rubble on Thursday for survivors.

"Our hearts are broken," Father Ed Karasek told the hundreds of people who filled every pew and the lobby of St Mary's church.

"Our town of West will never be the same, but we will persevere."

In a town as small as West - population 2 800 - there are no strangers.

Everyone was touched somehow by the massive blast that destroyed dozens of homes, flattened a 50-unit apartment building and tore a nursing home apart.

More than 160 people were sent to hospital after the shock wave smashed windows as far as 10 blocks away and the flames spread from building to building on Wednesday night.

Up to 35 dead

Even after a full day of searching, officials refused to release a death toll as rumours flew through town about who was still missing and which bodies have been found.

Estimates ranged from five to 35 dead on Thursday.

"It's very hard not knowing who's alive and who isn't," said Julie Veselka, aged 34, as she hugged her infant daughter while tears streamed down her face.

Veselka was watching the fire from her car when the plant blew up. Her first thought was of the volunteer firefighters inside.

"That's what scared me the most - I didn't know who was in there. Who had made it. Who hasn't made it," she said after the vigil at St Mary's church concluded.

"Those are people I grew up with, people I've known my whole life."

Not as lucky

Joanie Pilgrim's body shook as she tried to pull herself together after the emotional service.

"I'm just so thankful that my family is okay," Pilgrim said as she reached under her glasses to wipe away the tears.

Her mother was in the nursing home when it was smashed apart by the blast, but managed to escape with only scrapes and shock. Her brother was working at the fertiliser plant on Wednesday night, but left early and was gone before the fire broke out.

Pilgrim can't stop thinking of her friends and neighbours who weren't as lucky.

"I just feel so bad for the people who lost people," she said again and again as a friend gently rubbed her back.

Carol Bajer lost her home to the blast, but like Pilgrim, feels blessed that she didn't lose her family. Or her life.

It was a close call.

Broken glass everywhere

Bajer, aged 69, was outside when the blast struck, knocking her off her feet and into a car. She woke up dazed and desperate to find her grandson and his toddler, who had been watching the fire from the back yard.

When she got to them, they were buried under the sheetrock and insulation which had fallen out of the ruins of her house when the roof was torn off.

There was broken glass everywhere. And she wasn't strong enough to dig them out.

Bajer flagged down a couple driving by who managed to free her boys. They were covered in blood, but not seriously wounded.

"I have cried and cried and cried and I think my crier is broke," said as the church slowly emptied.

She can't stop thinking about the explosion or come to grips with the fact that she is homeless. Nor can she stop thinking of all the people who haven't been found yet. Or the funerals - and the tears - that are yet to come.

Pastor John Crowder urged the townsfolk to find comfort in each other, and in God, as he took to the pulpit after two priests walked from pew to pew down the aisle with candles so their flames could be passed from person to person.

"The reason we light candles at a time like this is because it gives us hope to see the impact the light of the candle has on the darkness," the Baptist minister said.

"What happened is horrific, but our God is bigger."



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