WEST, Texas (AP) — Rescue workers searched rubble that witnesses compared to a warzone early Thursday for survivors of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small Texas town that injured dozens of people and killed an unknown number of others. The blast left the factory a smoldering ruin and leveled buildings for blocks in every direction.
The explosion in downtown West, about 20 miles north of Waco, shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
“They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes,” Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning. “At this point, we don’t know a number that have been killed. … I think we will see those fatalities increase as we get toward the morning.”
Among those believe to be dead: A group of volunteer firefighters who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. about an hour before the blast. They remained unaccounted for overnight.
The explosion that struck around 7 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was “totally decimated.” Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city’s Murrah Federal Building.
Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, they put the number of those injured at more than 100. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs “your prayers.”
“We’ve got a lot of people who are hurt, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, who aren’t gonna be here tomorrow,” Muska said. “We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for. That’s the most important thing right now.”
In the hours after the blast, many of the town’s residents wandered the dark and windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the fertilizer plant when the explosion hit. She was walking the track, he was kicking a football.
The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home and the roof of the school lifted into the air.
“The fire was so high,” she said. “It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking.”
The town’s volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant about 6 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 50 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., Wilson said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant’s ruins.