Source: http://usnews.nbcnews.com, April 18, 2013
By: M. Alex Johnson, John Newland and Tracy Connor, NBC News
Rescue crews were going door to door Thursday in the ruins of a small Texas town where a fertilizer-plant explosion killed at least 5 to 15 people, wounded more than 160 and destroyed dozens of home and businesses, including a nursing home.
“I don’t know how many folks may still be trapped in rubble,” said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton, adding that police were also coping with looters in the area.
“Homes have been destroyed. There are homes flattened. Part of that community is gone.”
Those still missing included three to five firefighters who were battling a blaze at the plant when it blew up just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, shaking the ground with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake and unleashing a plume of smoke over the farming town of West.
“It just sucked you in and just threw you to the ground,” resident Crystal Jerigan told TODAY, describing how she grabbed her two daughters out of a car and dove through the front door of their house.
There was no indication of criminal activity, although the area was being treated as a crime scene as a precautionary measure, said Swanton, who works for the police department in Waco, about 20 miles away from West.
“It was a huge explosion,” he said. “It reached blocks, if not miles, in its devastating effect. … My guess is going to be that … we will see the casualty rate rise and the injury rate rise.”
The blast decimated a five- to-six block radius around the plant, where two massive tanks held highly pressurized anhydrous ammonia. It wrecked about 50 to 75 homes in the area and a middle school. The walls were torn off an apartment complex.
“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.”
At daybreak, the fire at the plant and several more at surrounding homes were smoldering. Rescue crews were hoping to find people alive in debris.
“Those guys and gals out there are in a heart- and gut-wrenching job and they’re doing the best they can,” Swanton said.
Resident Sammy Chavez, who ran to the West Rest Haven nursing home despite being injured, told KXAS he found surreal scene.
“I just saw the explosion and then after that I took off running and then I saw the West home, and people you know were buried under the West home, the West home was gone,” Chavez said. “It was gone. The school’s gone. The apartments are gone. It’s horrible.”
The blast could be felt for miles.
Derrick Hurtt was in his truck, recording the fire from about 300 yards, when the flames erupted with a blinding flash, followed by a towering pillar of smoke.
He caught the explosion on his camera, along with the panicked screams of his daughter Khloey, who begged him to drive away.
“I’m pretty sure it lifted the truck off the ground. It just blew me over on top of her,” Hurtt said on TODAY. “It all happened so quick that things kind of went black for a moment.”
“It was a pretty horrific scene, some of the injuries we saw,” he said.
Mayor Tommy Muska, who is also a firefighter, was heading to the plant to battle the blaze when it exploded.
“It blew my hat off, and then I heard it. I felt it before I heard it,” Muska said. “It was a very powerful explosion.”
There are only about 2,700 residents in West, many of whom were taken to shelters.
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco said it treated 101 patients and admitted 28. Five of them were in the intensive care unit, two in critical condition. Emergency room Dr. Bradford Holland said injuries included skull and leg fractures and large cuts.
Providence Hospital in Waco said it had received 65 patients, many with abrasions and broken bones and some in respiratory distress, apparently because of chemical or smoke inhalation.
It is the “most devastating thing that’s happened to this community,” Muska said at a news conference. “We need your prayers.”
“There’s a lot of people that are hurt. And there’s a lot of people that I’m sure are not going to be here tomorrow. … It is a cut across our hearts.”
The cause of the fire and explosion were unknown. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was leading the investigation.
“Nothing at this point indicates that we have had criminal activity,” Swanton said.
In a safety report on file with the Environmental Protection Agency, the West Fertilizer Co. said that there was no risk of fire or explosion from the ammonia stored near a residential neighborhood and a school, the Dallas Morning News reported. The main hazard was an accidental release of the gas, the report said.
Initial fears about dangerous fumes from the fire were allayed by about 6 a.m. ET., with Swanton saying “air quality at this point is not an issue.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement that state resources were being made available to local authorities.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene,” he said.
In a statement, President Obama thanked first-responders, pledged support and offered prayers.
“A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives,” Obama said.
NBC News’ Matthew DeLuca and Reuters contributed to this story.