An explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, killed as many as 15 people and injured at least 160, leading Gov. Rick Perry to declare a disaster and ask for an emergency declaration from the federal government.
Officials say the devastation has made it difficult to determine the number of people who have died.
"I don’t know how many folks may still be trapped in rubble," said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton. "Homes have been destroyed. There are homes flattened. Part of that community is gone."
As many as five emergency personnel are missing and may be among the dead. One injured firefighter was found at a local hospital. There was “a small amount of looting” in the affected area, Swanton said.
“There are homes leveled, businesses leveled; there is massive devastation in the downtown West area,” he said. The authorities continued searching house by house more than 12 hours later and the number of casualties may rise, he said.
"It's a lot of devastation. I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara told Reuters. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
Adair Grain’s DBA West Fertilizer Co. is an anhydrous ammonia facility, Trooper D.L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a separate conference. Anhydrous ammonia, a liquid source of the fertilizer nitrogen, is applied directly by farmers to the soil to boost crop yields.
West Fertilizer said it stored as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the site in an emergency planning report filed to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Dallas Morning News.
While the site is being treated as a crime scene, there are no indications that the fire wasn’t accidental, Swanton said. The blaze is now under control and at least 160 injured people are being treated at the local hospitals, he said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has activated its National Response Team for the blast, according to a federal law enforcement official. The team includes forensic chemists and explosive specialists. The federal agents will be responsible for determining whether the explosion was accidental or criminal, the official said.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, said on its website it deployed a “large investigation team” that should arrive today.
The FAA has issued a temporary flight restriction over the area of West, Texas, Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said today before the House Committee on Homeland Security. She said local utilities have turned off utility service in the area, and FEMA has been activated.
“We will continue to monitor events over the course of this day,” Napolitano said.
President Barack Obama called Texas Governor Rick Perry from Air Force One while on his way to Boston to offer any federal resources the state may need in the response to the blast, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman. Obama also told Perry “that his prayers are with the people of West, Texas,” Earnest said in an e-mail.
The administration said earlier that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been in contact with state officials to make sure they have the necessary resources.
Texas Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz said in a statement they were “deeply saddened to learn of the horrific explosion in West, Texas.”
In Waco, 28 people were admitted to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, Chief Executive Officer Glenn Robinson said. Five were in the intensive care unit, two of them in critical condition, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot of lacerations, some puncture wounds,” Robinson said. Some patients had broken legs and hips and a handful had head injuries. Nine people with burns were transferred to Parkland hospital in Dallas.
The worst-hit areas appeared to be a nursing home and a 50- unit apartment building near the fertilizer plant, Swanton said at an earlier briefing. Local television station KWTX showed fires in the ruins of the plant and in surrounding buildings, and people being treated on a flood-lit sports field.
Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist at the U.S Geological Survey, said a magnitude 2.1-degree seismic event had been registered as the explosion occurred. The impact would have generated a shock wave, she said by phone from Golden, Colorado.
The last time a U.S. industrial catastrophe killed so many people was 2010, when 29 coal miners perished in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine. The West explosion may be the worst in Texas since a blast at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery in 2005, which killed 15 workers and injured more than 100.
The U.S.’s worst industrial accident also occurred in Texas, in April 1947, when a fire on board the SS Grandcamp freighter in the port of Texas City detonated a cargo of ammonium nitrate. The resulting explosions and fires killed more than 570 people.
Wilson, who likened the scene at West to the Iraq war, said the 50-home apartment complex now resembled a “skeleton,” while a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home had both been badly damaged. Emergency responders evacuated 133 residents, including some in wheelchairs, from the nursing home.
Elizabeth Marquez-Perea, who lives in West about a mile north of the plant, said about 50 families lived at Tucker Apartments, the damaged block close to the facility. She and her three daughters fled after the blast shattered windows of their apartment. “It smelled like gas, a real terrible smell,” she said.
About a month ago, the school close to the plant had sent parents a note explaining that children had been moved for the day to a different location because of smells coming from the fertilizer plant, Marquez-Perea said.
Crystal Webb said she was preparing to drive her 7-year-old son from her home near the plant to her mother’s home in another part of town when the explosion happened.
“It’s an indescribable sound and feeling,” Webb said. “Every window in my home, every door in my home is completely busted.”
The blast tore bricks off the outside of her house, Webb said. She and her son were uninjured, she said.
“I’m anxious to get home,” she said. She didn’t know if her house survived the fire.
Wesley Adcock, 29, was delivering a load of concrete to a construction site when he saw a mushroom cloud in his rearview mirror. He volunteered to ferry victims to hospitals in Waco. The three people he helped were all residents of a nursing home near the factory.
“The last lady was 95, she said she was buried in the bathroom when the ceiling collapsed on her,” Adcock said.
Yesterday’s blast came two days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. government’s raid on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco that killed 76, including cult leader David Koresh. In revenge for that incident, exactly two years later Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb containing ammonium nitrate in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
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