A man lowers a flag to half-staff in downtown West, Texas. ( Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
WEST, Texas--If there’s one absolute truth in life, it’s that very few things can stop a little old lady from getting her hair done. Not ill health—and, it turns out, not even a deadly explosion.
On Wednesday a fire and subsequent explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant here leveled five city blocks, killing at least 12 people and injuring more than 160. Some 60 people remain unaccounted for, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said on Friday. At least 150 homes and buildings—including a nursing home and an elementary school—were damaged or destroyed.
But on Friday morning at the Headquarters Beauty Salon on Main Street, Dorothy Kucera was holding court as she does most Fridays from under the blow dryer chair. Her short wet hair had just been freshened with a brunette rinse and wrapped in tiny curlers. And as the dryer purred, she and five other ladies in the salon gossiped about what was going on in town—only this week, the topic was a little more serious.
Kucera’s home is just blocks from the plant. She and her husband, Jerry, had just eaten dinner when the fire broke out. When she saw the flames, she called to her husband, who had been washing dishes, to come outside and look at the huge fire which was rapidly expanding.
“I said, ‘Jerry, you’ve gotta see this,’” she recalled to a rapt audience at the salon on Friday, including a pair of stylists and a tiny elderly woman, whose blueish-gray hair was being unwrapped from curlers.
Kucera said her husband, who uses a walker, at first didn’t want to come out and instead was peering out a window above their kitchen sink. But he did after she insisted—and within seconds, the plant exploded, sending up a plume of smoke she likened to something she’d seen in photos of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“That thing just blew,” she said, matter-of factly. The windows in her house shattered, and the force caused her garage door to buckle, preventing her from getting access to her car to escape. She added that if her husband had been still standing at the kitchen window, he would have been seriously injured “because it was just right there.”
Soon they were evacuated and moved to a local hotel, where they’ve been staying since the explosion. They haven’t been allowed to go back to their house, Kucera said, "And I don't know when we will."
As she spoke about that night, she occasionally paused to update the gaggle on what was happening with other friends. “Barbara’s windows are all blown out,” she said, at one point. And then she spoke of those whom she had heard were dead, whispering their names.
“Nobody knows for sure, but people are talking, and we’ll know soon enough,” Kucera said. “This is a small town.”
Indeed, in a town of less than 3,000 people, everybody knows somebody who was killed or injured or displaced. And many residents are trying to figure out how to cope.
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