By Corrie MacLaggan
WEST, Texas (Reuters) - West High School student Mason Barton, 17, was heading home from watching friends compete at a track and field meet on Wednesday when she got word of an explosion in her tiny town of West, outside of Waco, Texas.
"We were all making a joke," she said outside a local community centre on Thursday, tears streaming down her face. "Then we heard how bad it was. It was like something you hear out of a horror story."
Barton talked by phone to her father, who breathlessly told her that their home was among those destroyed in the blast at a local fertilizer plant Wednesday evening that smashed windows and tore off roofs in surrounding neighbourhoods.
Then, Barton learned that her mother's home was destroyed too.
Authorities said Thursday morning that at least 160 needed medical treatment and at least five people died. The final death toll is not yet known.
The facility mixed and sold fertilizer to local farmers and was located near residential areas, as are thousands of such outlets throughout the American farm belt.
The explosion has traumatized this town of 2,700 people where Czech immigrants settled. It is known in Texas for the "Czech Stop" bakery, a convenient stop for a delicious kolache pastry along Interstate 35 between Austin and Dallas.
Just hours after the blast, a line of 30 people snaked through the aisles on Thursday.
"After the explosion, we never thought of closing because people need a sense of normalcy," Czech Stop president Barbara Schissler said.
Schools were closed and many businesses were shuttered on Thursday as residents tried to make sense of the tragedy. Barton and others were not allowed to return to their homes to see what they had lost.
In downtown West, where businesses like Eddy's Saddles & Tack had boarded-up windows, Larry and Kathy Green were sweeping up glass outside a building they own on Main Street that includes the saddle store and a video store. Larry Green was inside Video World on Wednesday when he heard a sudden, loud bang.
"Glass was flying everywhere; movies were falling off the shelves," he said.
At the local community centre, where the high-school track students reunited with their parents after the meet on Wednesday night, volunteers on Thursday brought sacks of oranges, packages of diapers and trays of bottled water. At a building next door, counselling was available.
Betty Reeves, who was leaving the centre, said her niece suffered the loss of both her house and her husband, a volunteer fire-fighter who died in the explosion.
When the blast happened, her niece was on a porch talking to her sister while her 2-year-old and 18-year-old played outside, Reeves said.
"She heard her scream bloody murder," Reeves said. The children were fine, but there was glass everywhere, and "the back of the house was up in the front of the house."
She said a church was bringing dinner on Thursday to the family, which had gathered at her home in Waco.
"We're OK," she said.
(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)