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Sunday, April 21, 2013 - 3:19pm
(CNN)-By Todd Sperry WEST,Texas — One by one, the beleaguered townspeople of West, Texas, filed into local churches Sunday to begin the healing process, following last week's deadly blast at the nearby West Fertilizer Co. plant.
As parishioners streamed out of St. Mary's Catholic Church after Sunday's service, Father Boniface Onjefu hugged and consoled his congregants, and gave reassuring smiles and high fives to the church's youngest members.
"West is a strong city. We shall definitely overcome this tragedy," Onjefu told those assembled at his church, about a mile from the explosion site. Several members of St. Mary's were killed or injured battling the blaze, Onjefu told CNN.
The church's parking lot has become a staging area, of sorts, for police and first responders who have flooded the north central Texas community since Wednesday's explosion that killed 14 people.
Search and rescue efforts have evolved into search and recovery efforts, because officials don't expect to find any more victims in the wreckage -- alive or dead.
The explosion at West Fertilizer's plant ruined much of the north side of town, and left hundreds of people injured, homeless and in need of help.
On television nationally, the scope of the tragedy was overshadowed by the dramatic events in New England, as investigators there pursued leads in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, then pursued their suspects.
But many Texans kept their focus on the great need close to home. Long lines of cars streamed by the community center, dropping off food, water and other rations throughout the weekend. Numerous church groups and restaurants handed out hot meals.
"These are our neighbors. They are coming to help," Waco Police Department Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told reporters. "You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations."
The nine first responders from West who died battling the blaze represented nearly one-third of the town's volunteer firefighting and EMT force. The fire destroyed two fire trucks and an ambulance. Firefighters and trucks from neighboring communities now fill the void at the West firehouse.
At Sunday's emotional church service in this farming town of fewer than 3,000 residents, the priest told congregants his personal recollection of Wednesday's horror. He had just returned to the rectory when he heard the blast.
"I thought it was an earthquake," Onjefu said. The lights flickered on and off as his small two-story brick residence shook from the explosion, he added.
Onjefu said that when he headed outside, he immediately noticed a large, dark plume of smoke rising in the sky on the north side of town. He got into his car and drove toward the smoke.
The priest was one of the first to arrive in the destroyed part of town. He immediately began helping remove victims from a severely damaged nursing home. The town's high school and middle school, also close to the fertilizer plant, sustained heavy damage as well.
Onjefu said that since the blast, he has witnessed "fear in the eyes" of people walking the streets of West.
Many churchgoers trying to fathom the destruction have asked Onjefu for answers about why the plant exploded.
"I guess it could have been worse," an elderly church member told him as he left the Sunday service.
Onjefu smiled and agreed, reminding the man of his sermon, which noted that rains and winds in the area had helped tame the blaze, and kept the poisonous cloud of fumes away from the center of town.
Evacuated townspeople began returning home late Saturday to begin what promises to be a massive cleanup effort. Authorities allowed a second wave to revisit their homes Sunday.
The process "is going well and orderly," with "very few hiccups," said Steve Vanek, West's mayor pro tem. Adult residents are being allowed in until 7 p.m., under the supervision of Texas state police, he said.
A strict curfew and heavy state police presence control the areas cordoned off near the site -- almost the entire north side of town.
The cause of the fire and explosion has not been determined yet, but investigators have isolated the center of the blast, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said Sunday. The explosion left a large crater in the middle of the plant, Kistner said.
Funeral arrangements are pending for those killed. But Vanek said Sunday that Baylor University, 20 miles away in Waco, will host a memorial service for first responders at 2 p.m. Thursday. So far, 10 of the 14 casualties have been identified as first responders, including a Dallas firefighter.
In Hillsboro, Texas, about 15 miles from West, hotels and storefront windows displayed fliers celebrating the life of firefighter Jerry Chapman, who was killed fighting the blaze, an indication that the mourning and sense of grief go far beyond the close-knit community of West.