WEST, Texas – The damage to surrounding homes and businesses caused by an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant was estimated Wednesday to exceed $100 million, as crews continued to sift through a 90-foot-wide crater searching for answers.
The Insurance Council of Texas released its estimate after speaking to numerous adjusters and agents in West, Texas, where officials and displaced residents are working to rebuild after last week's blast. The explosion killed at least 14 people, injured 200 and damaged dozens of buildings.
Investigators have not determined what started the blast or whether it was intentional. At least two lawsuits have been filed against Adair Grain Inc., which operated the West Fertilizer plant.
Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council, said that total figure included estimates on how many homes were destroyed, the property inside and the cost of relocating residents. As many as 140 homes were damaged, he said. With housing limited in West, many families are living in nearby Waco or Hillsboro.
"When you put something together like this, you want to be on the high side," Hanna said. "When you go into a catastrophic situation, the last thing you want to do is lowball estimates like this."
Investigators said Wednesday that the explosion occurred at 7:51 p.m. on April 17 — 18 minutes after first responders, including volunteer firefighters from West, were alerted to a fire at West Fertilizer. Most of the 10 first responders who died in the explosion were found east of the main crater, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said.
Officials continue to study fire and blast patterns to try to determine what ignited on the site and how, Kistner said.
"Right now, think of that coffee table where all 100 pieces are gathered around," said Brian Hoback, national response team supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Work crews were spread across the site Wednesday. Some were digging with shovels through the ruins of a building. Others were sifting through the remains of two silos, one that held corn and the other holding milo or sorghum.
A rail car that carried ammonium nitrate remained on site, covered by a tarp. Officials don't believe it was the cause of the blast.
At least two lawsuits have been filed in state district court in McLennan County, where West is located. Andrea Jones Gutierrez, a woman who lived in an apartment building severely damaged in the blast, filed suit Monday, seeking up to $1 million in damages.
Gutierrez had left her apartment after the fire began, just before the explosion, said her attorney, Randy Roberts. Her 14-year-old son was at church when the blast occurred.
"I don't have any special information or detailed information to go into depth about what went wrong, but obviously, something did go wrong, and the mere fact of an explosion of this type is evidence in and of itself of negligence," Roberts said.
Four insurance companies also sued West Fertilizer on behalf of several residents and businesses in West. Their attorney, Paul Grinke, said the lawsuit filed Friday was to ensure that his clients have access to the scene of the blast once the official investigation finishes.
"I'm not on a witch hunt for the West Fertilizer Co.," Grinke said. "We're going to go where the evidence leads us."
A spokesman for West Fertilizer declined comment on the lawsuits, saying, "Our focus remains on the fact finding."