WEST, Texas -- Alicia McCowan had just finished her shift at the Sonic drive-in when the blast erupted nearby, leveling buildings in a wide circle. Above, a mushroom cloud bloomed against a yellow-pink sky.
She knew the source -- the West Fertilizer Co. plant, close to the apartment where a baby sitter was watching her two young sons.
She rushed to the damaged apartment building and screamed her kids' names. She found Brayden, 4, dragging Kaegan, 2, down the stairs, and both were OK. But where was their baby sitter?
"Mommy, she was in your bed looking at the window and then the top of the house fell on her," Brayden told her.
In the tiny town of West on Thursday, searchers continued to pick through the wrecked buildings for victims of the explosion. Authorities confirmed that there were fatalities but did not offer a precise number. The State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas said 11 first responders were dead -- five from the West Fire Department, one from the Dallas Fire Department, four Emergency Medical Services personnel and one unknown. Eleven West firefighters were in the hospital.
More than 160 people were injured in Wednesday's blast. McCowan would later learn that her baby sitter was among those hospitalized.
On an ordinary Thursday in this community of 2,800 in north-central Texas, hundreds of people would be gathered for a weekly cattle auction, but it was canceled and the auction grounds swamped by TV news satellite trucks.
Nearby, donations were piling up -- groceries, paper towels, diapers. One family drove 100 miles to offer donations. Restaurants invited people in to eat free, schools sheltered people with no place to go, and employees at a nearby Wal-Mart gathered water and supplies to deliver to those in need. A steady procession of trucks bearing plywood and glass rolled through town.
A fire preceded the explosion, and the timing led to some injuries and at least one death -- residents watched the fire from windows only to have them shatter before their eyes when the blast occurred.
Bryce Reed, 31, an incident commander with West Emergency Medical Services, said that after the fertilizer plant caught fire Wednesday he was ordered just south of the site. He said a fellow firefighter stayed behind at the plant and was killed in the explosion, which struck about 8 p.m. and was as powerful as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. It could be felt for miles around.
"He was my best friend. He got me help through the crisis in my life." Reed said. "A bomb went off in all of our lives.... How do you recover from something like this?"
West sits amid the wide-open prairie land of central Texas, its green fields dotted with trees and patches of bluebonnets that unfurl on rolling hills as far as the eyes can see under a big blue-and-cotton sky.
The avenue leading to West's downtown is lined with several small Czech restaurants and bakeries, selling sausages and kolaches, the breakfast pastry of Czech lineage that has become something of a central Texas delicacy. The sign out front of the West Chamber of Commerce advertises the upcoming "over 40 dance" and offers birthday wishes to 9-year-old Breanna and to Father Ed.
By some estimates, the blast destroyed a full one-fifth of the town's buildings and damaged a third of the town. Most businesses were closed Thursday, including a pizzeria advertising "skunk eggs." The pizzeria also featured a new sign: "We are closed. Pray for West."
Downtown, workers made their way up the street, boarding up windows and trying to turn on the water. The Village Bakery was giving away kolaches. "Everyone is stretching themselves to the max," said bakery owner Mimi Montgomery Irwin. "There is no possible way that the Village Bakery is charging anyone for anything."
Montgomery Irwin, 68, had been watching television at home when a noise like "a supersonic boom" shook her home, knocking her to the floor and plunging the TV screen into blackness. She got up and saw the cloud against the sky. "It was truly surreal," she said. She described her neighborhood as one of "dear hearts and genial people with big trees and clean lawns, with neighbors that cut your grass and take your trash in."
Montgomery Irwin jumped in her car and headed downtown to the bakery her family has owned for 61 years. Six of her employees were there baking, and she feared the gas might cause another explosion. Two men from a hardware store helped her turn off the gas. Then she began to worry about her 91-year-old aunt, Lucille, who lives in a nursing home where the blast had shattered windows and launched shards into rooms where elderly residents slept.
Montgomery Irwin said her 84-year-old aunt helped pull Lucille out of the crumbling building and drove her to safety.
"These aren't ordinary women we're talking about," Montgomery Irwin said. "We are Texas women."
Joann Williams, 70, is often teased for her fondness for ice cream, but on Wednesday it may have saved her life. She had just stepped away from her couch and was retrieving banana chocolate fudge ice cream from her kitchen freezer -- a second helping -- when the explosion hit, sending shards into the sofa where she had just been sitting.
"I just had to be Miss Piggy and got that second one," said Williams, who was uninjured, though bits of ceiling and insulation fell into her hair.
She and her husband, Keith, 74, were grateful to escape with their lives, though their house was probably a loss. "Hey, it's just a house," Keith Williams said.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said hundreds of rescue workers from agencies all over Texas, large and small, had come to help search for victims.
"This is heartbreaking," said McNamara, who has been sheriff for just four months. "There's no other way to describe it."
The dynamics behind the disaster were still under investigation, but the chaotic minutes afterward were reflected in recordings of emergency dispatchers
"Y'all have anybody available, I am requesting you. They have firefighters down," said a dispatcher. "Firefighters down. Again, there has been an explosion; there are firefighters down."
A responder called from a home for senior citizens, describing it as "institutionally damaged."
"We have many people down," he said. "Police, please respond."
"I'm getting you everybody I can," a dispatcher responded.
Rescue workers from throughout the area were directed to the plant, a triage area, a burning middle school and an apartment building where people were stuck inside.
Then, suddenly, units were warned to back off the site amid fears of another explosion.
"Everybody needs to get away from there. Back all trucks away from the power plant," a man said.
President Barack Obama, in Boston to attend a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, called Texas Gov. Rick Perry from Air Force One to tell him that his prayers were with the people of West. He offered federal assistance.
The blast appeared to be an industrial accident, but as a precaution the area was being treated as a crime scene. The explosion came almost exactly 20 years after the standoff in Waco, about 20 miles south, where 76 members of the Branch Davidian group died after a fiery siege at their compound.
McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said the area remained "volatile" because of the presence of ammonium nitrate at the fertilizer plant. Authorities asked that no one enter the affected area.
The explosion was the talk of Texas. A Dallas hip-hop and R&B radio station played a dramatic mix of sounds of the explosion and snippets of news coverage, calling for the "prayer warriors" listening to pray for their "friends in West." The station organized a donation drive at Dallas-Fort Worth area Wal-Marts. Listeners called in, promising to leave work early to drop off goods. "Thanks for wanting to help, darling," a deejay said.
By Cindy Carcamo, John M. Glionna and Rick Rojas
Los Angeles Times