Purchase photos

Frantic search ongoing after deadly blast

4/18/2013

WEST, Texas (AP) -- Rescue workers searched rubble early today for survivors of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small Texas town that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others. The blast left the factory a smoldering ruin and leveled homes and businesses for blocks in every direction.

Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said officials went building to building in the largely decimated area around the plant that exploded with the strength of a small earthquake in downtown West, a farming community approximately 20 miles north of Waco.

"They have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.

The explosion, which could be heard dozens of miles away, sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.

Swanton said earlier authorities believe between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed it was an early estimate. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

Three to five volunteer firefighters were among those believed to be dead, Swanton said. A single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before the blast was accounted for early today.

The explosion that struck at 8 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was "totally decimated." The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with approximately 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.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, 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 4 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 sky.

"Hit the ground, hit the ground," Zahirniako heard a neighbor yell.

"The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking."

William Burch and his wife, a retired Air Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first responders arrived. They split up, searching separate wings, and found residents in wheelchairs trapped in their rooms. The halls were dark and the ceilings had collapsed. Water filled the hallways and electrical wires hung eerily from the ceilings.

"They had Sheetrock that was on top of them. You had to remove that," Burch said. It was "completely chaotic."

Some witnesses compared the scene to 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 how many lives were lost, they put the number of those injured at more than 160 early today. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters his city of 2,800 people 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."

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 20 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., 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 today authorities were not concerned about lingering smoke from the fire, and noted rain from a morning thunderstorm helped 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. Most were unsure what had happened.

"Get them into an ambulance now," workers shouted.