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Oklahoma Woman Remembers Fertilizer Plant Explosion That Killed Her Husband

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Debbie Bell, 34 years ago, was Debbie Autry, a newly married city girl, living life in the country with her high school sweetheart, Jack Autry. Debbie Bell, 34 years ago, was Debbie Autry, a newly married city girl, living life in the country with her high school sweetheart, Jack Autry.
Jack and another man, Ron Frost, were working at the fertilizer plant in Verdigris. The two died instantly, when a tank car carrying anhydrous ammonia exploded. Jack and another man, Ron Frost, were working at the fertilizer plant in Verdigris. The two died instantly, when a tank car carrying anhydrous ammonia exploded.
Bell said the feelings came flooding back last week, when she saw what happened at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Bell said the feelings came flooding back last week, when she saw what happened at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
VERDIGRIS, Oklahoma -

Hundreds of residents in the small town of West, Texas haven't seen their homes since a fertilizer plant exploded more than a week ago. And, some will never see them.

That's because dozens are so badly damaged, they're too dangerous even for families to try and recover personal belongings.

Lillian Hannes, 82, said she knows her home is gone, but she's hoping they'll let her search for mementos.

I'd like to get all of my photos, especially of my husband, of our wedding pictures and stuff. Then the cross that was in his casket is in my bedroom, and I'd love to have it," Hannes said.

Hannes said, whether she finds what she's looking for or not, she's thankful to be alive.

A similar explosion rocked a Green County fertilizer plant more than three decades ago. It was much less destructive, but it did take two lives.

4/19/2013 Related Story: Resident Near Verdigris Fertilizer Plant Concerned After Texas Explosion

Debbie Bell was just 23 when she said goodbye to her husband. And now, despite the gap in time, she said that explosion in Texas brings back painful memories, but some happy ones as well.

"We were just kids and we mostly just had fun. We didn't think about tomorrow," Bell said.

Debbie Bell, 34 years ago, was Debbie Autry, a newly married city girl, living life in the country with her high school sweetheart, Jack Autry.

"We had happy times and a very, very happy life, and we were trying to have a baby at that time, too," Bell said.

Debbie and Jack never got the chance to have a baby. The dreams they shared of a life together were gone in a flash, after an explosion at Jack's work.

She said she remembers the call she got just before 6 a.m. on June 10, 1979.

"I started to panic, because really deep down inside me, I knew. I knew, I don't know how I knew, but deep down inside, I had this feeling that Jack was gone," Bell said.

Jack and another man, Ron Frost, were working at the fertilizer plant in Verdigris. The two died instantly, when a tank car carrying anhydrous ammonia exploded.

"Just completely out of the blue shock," Bell said. "It was just--it was just the most horrible feeling you could ever imagine."

Bell said all those feelings came flooding back last week, when she saw what happened at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

"It just broke my heart. I couldn't even hardly watch news," Bell said.

And while the devastation in Texas was on a much larger scale, Bell said feels a connection, all the same.

"My heart just sank, it just sank. I looked over at my husband and said, 'Oh my God,' and I was shaking. I was like, 'Oh my God, I know exactly,'" Bell said.

And she also knows, life does go on. Bell gave birth to her daughter, Rachel, fives years after burying Jack. And she's been happily married for six years now.

Even so, she said Jack is always in her heart, along with a question she'll never be able to answer.

"Yeah, we had our whole lives. And I still wonder, to this day, where we'd be," Bell said.

The fertilizer plant in Verdigris has changed owners since that explosion. The current plant is one of 45 companies in the state recognized by OSHA for its advanced safety programs.

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