Texas Fertilizer Plant Injures 160, Kills 5-15 [VIDEO]
Rescue workers searched the smoldering ruins of a fertilizer plant Thursday for survivors of a monstrous explosion that leveled homes and businesses in every direction across the Texas prairie. As many as 15 people were feared dead and more than 160 others injured.
Daybreak revealed a breathtaking band of destruction extending outward from the West Fertilizer Co. in this small farming community about 20 miles north of Waco. The thunderous blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away.
The West Fertilizer Company told the Dallas Morning News there were 54,000 pounds of ammonia inside the factory.
Several buildings with smashed roofs and leveled walls still were smoking early Thursday.
"They have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said of rescuers.
There is no "chemical escape" that is "out of control," Swanton told CNN. There are also reports of looting.
Raining Embers & Debris
The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers and debris down on shocked and frightened residents. It leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was "totally decimated."
There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, Swanton said.
The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to "a skeleton," a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.
Swanton said earlier that authorities believe between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed it was an early estimate.
The explosion caused a tremor that measured 2.1 on the Richter scale according to the US Geological Survey
"There is quite a bit of devastation,"said Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton according to WFAA TV.
At the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Hospital in Waco, elderly people were wheeled in on stretchers. A man in a wheelchair with his T-shirt covered in blood winced as medical professionals tended to wounds on his head and left arm.
The town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant at 7:29 p.m., Swanton said. Due to the plant's chemical stockpile, "they realized the seriousness of what they had," he said.
Muska was among the firefighters, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 20 minutes later.
The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., authorities said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins. Swanton said early Thursday authorities were not concerned about lingering smoke from the fire, and noted that rain from a morning thunderstorm helped their efforts.
Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene in the hours after the blast. Firefighters used flashlights to search the still-burning skeleton of an apartment complex that was all but destroyed. All that remained of a nearby house was the fireplace and chimney, standing tall among smoldering embers of what was once someone's home. Smoke filled the air.
A flood-lit football field initially was used as a staging area, then other triage centers sprung up around the blast site. At one, an army of first responders evaluated senior citizens, many of whom were disoriented, dazed and panicked.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. An Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions also was coming in, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, canines and forensic specialists. But entry to the blast site wasn't expected until later. "It's still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, an ATF spokesperson.
There were no immediate details available from police on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.
In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.
The Associated Press contributed to this story