An explosion tore through a fertilizer plant and leveled dozens of homes in a small town near Waco, Texas, late on Wednesday, killing up to 15 people, injuring more than 160, and spewing toxic fumes that forced the evacuation of half the community.
Police said between five and 15 people were killed in the explosion in West, a town of about 2,800 people some 80 miles south of Dallas.
"I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
The blast, triggered by a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, was reported at about 8 p.m in West.
The cause of the fire was unknown, officials said. Waco police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said investigators would examine whether the blaze was the result of criminal activity or the result of a chemical reaction.
Earlier, West Mayor Tommy Muska told Reuters that five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first on the scene were missing.
Firefighters had been battling the fire and evacuating nearby residences and a nursing home for about 50 minutes before the blast occurred.
Officials said flames that continued to smolder inside the plant posed two threats — the possibility of setting off further explosions and the emission of hazardous fumes into the town.
Swanton said a residual fire burning underneath additional chemical tanks had been brought under control "and I don't think that is any longer a threat."
Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said about half the town, about eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shifted.
The blast produced ground motion equivalent to that of a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A Reuters reporter observed that a nearby middle school and several homes were severely burned. Dallas television station WFAA reported from helicopters that a roughly three-block area of West appeared to have been flattened.
BURNS, BROKEN BONES
Jason Shelton, 33, a father-of-two who lives less than a mile from the plant, said he heard fire trucks heading toward the facility five minutes before the explosion, and felt the concussion from the blast as he stood on his front porch.
"My windows started rattling and my kids screaming," Shelton told Reuters. "The screen door hit me in the forehead ... and all the screens blew off my windows."
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco reported treating 66 patients, including children, for injuries including lacerations, burns and broken bones.
"We are seeing a lot of lacerations and orthopedic-type injuries . . . things you would expect in an explosion," said David Argueta, vice president of hospital operations.
He said nine people suffering burns had been transferred to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas. A third hospital, Providence Health Center, reported receiving more than 30 patients from the disaster.
Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement saying his office had "mobilized state resources to help local authorities" deal with the incident.
A White House official said the Obama administration was aware of the situation and monitoring local and state response through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The explosion came two days before the 20th anniversary of a fire in nearby Waco that engulfed a compound inhabited by David Koresh and his followers in the Branch Davidian sect, ending a siege by federal agents.
About 82 members of the sect and four federal agents died at Waco.
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