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Volunteers Help Residents Clear Explosion Debris In Texas


President Obama travels to another memorial today, this one in the Texas town of West. It is to remember those killed last week when a fertilizer plant exploded there. Yesterday, some of those living in homes closest to the plant were allowed back for the first time. NPR's Wade Goodwyn was there.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: As a springtime Texas sun streams down gently through the live oaks, neighbors and volunteers flow in and out of their houses, carting broken glass and sheetrock. These homes are less than a quarter mile from what remains of the fertilizer plant.

NANCY SHELTON: I would not have lived if I had been in here. I just know I would have been outside looking at the fire, and it would have been even worse.

GOODWYN: Fifty-one-year-old Nancy Shelton was minutes from her home when the plant blew up last Wednesday, coming late from work. Her home, her belongings, the life she knew is ruined.

SHELTON: It was just completely devastating. It was like something out of a horror movie.

GOODWYN: Inside Shelton's home, a group of volunteers clear debris. The ceiling caved in, the doors were blown off and the windows were blown out. The blinds lay shredded on the floor in the living room.

SHELTON: There was just not an inch that you could walk that was not covered in glass.

GOODWYN: Powerful explosions can have a strange effect. Every door in Shelton's home was blown open, even the closet doors inside. Every drawer was open, too. Sadder, pets died if they were outside, killed not by debris, but by the concussion. Shelton's neighbors stumbled out of their destroyed homes to find their dogs dead in the backyard. That's when the weeping began.

SHELTON: The people next door to me, they lost two chocolate labs.

GOODWYN: As of last year, the fertilizer plant had 540,000 of pounds of ammonium nitrate onsite. Anything more than 400 pounds, and it should have been reported to the federal government. But Homeland Security says it knew nothing of the plant's existence. While many in West have said they don't blame the fertilizer plant's owner Donald Adair, Nancy Shelton does.

SHELTON: Because, to me, you should not deceive the people who are supporting you. He did not strike the match or whatever started it, but if he were outside of the guidelines and he knew he was outside of guidelines, that's just as guilty as striking the match.

GOODWYN: Shelton says she won't come back to this house, even if she could.

SHELTON: This is just a lot of bad memories. And I don't want to remember the holes in the wall, the glass in the wall, the glass that's embedded in everything.

GOODWYN: Or how lucky you were.

SHELTON: That's exactly right.

GOODWYN: Shelton says she's changed forever. She's gone from a woman who never gave any thought to the industrial landscape around her, to one who will, from now on, care very much.

SHELTON: I think everybody in West, a handshake was their word. And I think that everybody needs to be not so trusting and to maybe check out, you know, where they're living and what is surrounding them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We'll come back if you need us to carry furniture.

GOODWYN: At the end of the day, Nancy Shelton's house was cleared. What could be saved was in boxes, and a massive pile of garbage that used to be her life stood in the front yard. The ad-hoc group of volunteers from Billy Graham and the Brookshires grocery store gathered around to say goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, Nancy. It's the Billy Graham Training Bible. Inside, there's all kinds of helps that you can turn to, and it will be your rock that you can keep with you forever. And we've all signed it in the front.

SHELTON: Oh, thank you all very much. Thank you.

GOODWYN: As everybody drove away, Shelton stood alone in her front yard, clutching her Bible to her chest and waving goodbye. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, in the town of West, Texas.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.