A deadly explosion and fire tore through a fertilizer plant in a small Texas town late on Wednesday, injuring more than 100 people, leveling dozens of homes and spewing toxic fumes that forced evacuations of half the community, authorities said.
They said an undetermined number of people had been killed, and that the death toll was expected to rise as search teams combed through the rubble of the West Fertilizer Co. plant and surrounding homes.
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"We do have confirmed fatalities," Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson told a news conference early on Thursday, about four hours after the explosion. "The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We're in there searching the area right now and making sure that it's safe."
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton later said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate as search and rescue operations remain under way. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
The blast produced ground motion equivalent to that of a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the US Geological Survey.
Officials said flames that continued to smolder inside the plant posed two threats - the possibility of setting off an explosion of a second fertilizer tank and the emission of hazardous fumes into the surrounding community.
Wilson said about half the town, an area encompassing eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shift overnight as expected.
The blast, apparently preceded by a fire at the plant, was reported at about 8 pm local time in West, a town of some 2,700 people about 80 miles (130 km) south of Dallas and 20 miles (32 km) north of Waco.
It could be heard as far as 45 miles (72 kilometers) away.
"It's a lot of devastation. I've never seen anything like this," said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, D.L. Wilson, told Reuters the blast had probably caused "hundreds of casualties" and damaged many homes but had no word on fatalities. He added that a nearby nursing home had collapsed from the explosion and that people were believed trapped inside.
Fire rages in factory (Photo: MCT)
Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs. "We did get there and got that taken care of," Muska said.
Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, with even Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement. "We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."
Nearby buildings affected by fire (Photo: AP)
Aerial footage showed fires still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings, and people being treated for injuries on a flood-lit local football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke in the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home.
She said she drove over to see what was happening, and that when she got there, two boys came running toward her screaming that the authorities ordered everyone out because the plant was going to explode.
She said she drove about a block when the blast happened.
"It was like being in a tornado," Marak, 58, said by phone. "Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield."
"It was like the whole earth shook."
She drove 10 blocks and called her husband and asked him to come get her. When they got to their home south of town, her husband told her what he'd seen: a huge fireball that rose like "a mushroom cloud."
Residents evacuated (Photo: AP)
The explosion caused the roof of what appeared to be a housing complex of some kind to collapse. In aerial footage from NBC's Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, KXAS, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.
Authorities set up a staging area on a flood-lit high school football field, where the injured were being treated or taken to area hospitals via road or helicopter.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received 66 injured people for treatment, including 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.
Robinson did not immediately return messages from the AP.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.
A West Fire Department dispatcher said any casualties would be transported to hospitals in Waco, north of Austin, the state capital.
The explosion knocked out power to many area customers and could be heard and felt for miles around.
Brad Smith, who lives 45 miles north of West in Waxahachie, told the station that he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.
AP and Reuters contributed to this repot
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