WEST, Texas - A tiny Texas town shaken by tragedy took a major step toward normalcy Monday as hundreds of students went back to school days after a fertilizer plant explosion leveled homes and killed at least 14 people.
In a scene recalling the first day of school, teachers and staff waited for students to shake their hands and pat them on the shoulders. Some parents took the day off to walk or drive their children there. Classmates who hadn't seen each other since Wednesday talked and laughed - with dozens of reporters and TV cameras chronicling their arrival.
Most of the students were headed to new classrooms because the old ones were severely damaged by Wednesday's explosion at West Fertilizer Co.; the schools weren't in session that evening. Intermediate students were sent to the local elementary school, which set up trailers for classrooms in back. Middle- and high-school students were bused from a car dealership parking lot to nearby Waco, where officials had quickly made space for them.
"I'm just glad to get back to our routine," said 14-year-old Sofia Guerra, sitting in the car Monday morning with her mother, Erika, as they dropped her sister off at West Elementary School.
"It's unknown," she added. "We don't know what to expect."
Counselors will be in each classroom and available separately for students still dealing with the emotions of the blast. In the town of about 2,700 people, almost everyone knew someone killed, hurt or displaced. Some teachers who reported to work Monday had not been home since the blast, said Jan Hungate, assistant superintendent at West Elementary.
West and Connally are rivals - or were until Wednesday night. On Friday, Connally staff and volunteers began turning the vacant intermediate school into a high school, painting the classrooms in West's black-and-red school colors and scrubbing the floors.
Wesley Holt, a Connally district spokesman, said they also placed binders, notebooks and pens on each desk. Other districts donated furniture, and a food-service company prepared the cafeteria, he said.
"We honestly had to ask people to stop sending school supplies," Hungate said.