The scene of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, near Waco, Texas on April 21, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees
Hundreds of residents of the close-knit town of West, Texas sought healing at a church service on Sunday, as schools were readied to reopen and authorities investigated the cause of this week's deadly fertilizer plant blast.
About 200 residents - including farmers, veterans and migrant workers - packed into Church of the Assumption in the center of the town for Catholic mass early on Sunday.
Father Boniface Onjefu offered prayers for the 14 dead, among them local volunteer firefighters and emergency workers and nearly 200 injured in the blast that smashed several city blocks.
"West is a strong city," Onjefu told the congregation packed into the church, the altar decorated with a spray of white blossoms.
Residents of the tiny town, about 80 miles south of Dallas and less than 20 miles north of Waco, stood together "in these trying moments," he said.
"Let us be strong and move our beloved city ahead. God is with us. God bless us," Father Onjefu said.
The blaze and ensuing explosion at West Fertilizer Co, a privately owned retail facility, gutted a 50-unit apartment complex, demolished about 50 houses and battered a nursing home and several schools. Dozens more homes were reported to have been damaged.
The cause of the blast, which was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, remains under investigation. Neither the cause or the location of the fire that preceded it have been determined, say investigators.
Power, water and gas are still turned off in blast-ravaged parts of the city of 2,700 residents, which remains under a 7 p.m. CDT curfew. Mayor Tommy Muska said a local area school would reopen on Monday with some students in temporary classrooms.
There will be a memorial service for the first responders in Waco at 2 p.m. local time on Thursday.
Some of those evacuated from a devastated area north of the historic downtown have been allowed home but only to retrieve a few belongings. Muska warned the recovery will "be a marathon, not a sprint."
Larry Kaska, who lost his home on the north side of town, said the mass led by Onjefu at the brick-built church brought "some healing" to residents as they started to rebuild their shattered lives.
"We're turning ... getting back to some normalcy again," said Kaska, who is now living at his nephew's home. "Just hearing his prayers and comfort, and (knowing) that people are being supportive ... help you out."
Authorities have said there was no indication of foul play at the plant, which was last inspected for safety in 2011, according to a risk management plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
But for some at the Catholic church service, it was too early to speak of healing. Among them Silvestre Duran, a Mexican migrant whose care worker wife, Lucy, was injured as the blast tore through the nursing home where she worked.
"It will take time, a lot of people have memories that will be with them for a long time," Silvestre said, noting that his wife has suffered flashbacks since the blast.
"I'm doing a little better, but still dealing with the memories," said Lucy, speaking in Spanish. She was wrapped up against the slight chill in a black shawl, her face marked by burns and multiple stitches in her right ear.
Their daughter, who also worked at the nursing home, was injured in the explosion as well.
Another churchgoer, who identified himself only as a farmer who had lived in West all his life, was still struggling to come to terms with the toll on the town.
"I lost three of my best friends ... I should have been maybe there with" them, he said, clearly shaken. "I just consider myself and my family blessed ... If you don't have faith in the Good Lord, you have nothing."