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West, Texas, residents wait for word on homes

WEST, Texas -- The First Baptist Church in this tiny town where a fertilizer plant exploded is still off-limits, so the Rev. John Crowder put folding chairs in a pasture and improvised a pulpit on a flatbed truck. At the elementary school, an official carted extra desks and chairs into the only public school campus that's left.

This was Sunday in West. Four days after the blast that killed 14 people and injured 200 others, residents prayed for comfort and got ready for the week ahead, some still waiting to find out when -- or whether -- they will be able to go back home.

"We have lost our friends and neighbors. We lost the safety and comfort of our homes," said Crowder, raising his voice over the whir of overhead helicopters surveying the nearby rubble. "But as scary as this is, we don't have to be afraid."

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. rocketed shrapnel across several blocks and left what assistant state fire marshal Kelly Kirstner described as "a large crater." A section of the flat farming town near the crater, including Crowder's church, is still behind barricades.

One school campus was obliterated, and on the eve of 1,500 students returning to class after Wednesday's blast, Superintendent Marty Crawford said the high school and middle school could also be razed.

Nearly 70 federal and state investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire that set off the explosion, Kirstner said. Authorities say there are no signs of criminal intent.

Robert Champion, special agent in charge for the Dallas office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said experts plan to enter the crater in the next few days and start digging in search of an explanation.

Six firefighters and four emergency medics were among the dead, and city officials announced that a memorial service would be held Thursday at Baylor University.

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