Officials now number the dead from a Central Texas fertilizer plant explosion at 14, while residents attempt to recover some semblance of normalcy in the 2,800-person town of West. "The devastation is immense," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott of West, Texas, while another official added, "There are homes flattened. Part of that community is gone." The explosion occurred around 8 p.m. Wednesday and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, a town 45 miles north. Flames spiraled into the evening sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on frightened residents. A member of the West City Council, Al Vanek, said a four-block area around the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Plant was "totally decimated."
The Dallas Morning News reported that among the dead were at least 11 emergency responders, three of whom were training at the time of the blast to become EMTs. They valiantly rushed to the growing smoke plume that could be seen for miles around the small community of 2,800 people. It would be, as the paper said, "their last call." "We know everyone that was there first," said Christina Rodarte, 46, a West resident of 27 years. "There's no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders… all volunteer."
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. In addition to the dead, approximately 200 people were injured by the blast. A spokesman at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco said the facility received 98 patients, including five in intensive care. Another 30 have serious injuries, including orthopedic and head trauma.
Providence Health Center in Waco treated 65 patients from the explosion, admitting 12. A spokeswoman says those patients had broken bones, cuts, head injuries, minor burns and some breathing problems. Two patients were also being treated at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Roughly 133 patients, including some in wheelchairs, were evacuated from the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, which was among the damaged buildings.
Up to 75 homes were damaged, as well as an apartment complex with about 50 units that was reduced to a "skeleton," one official said. Erick Perez, 21, of West, was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed color. The blast threw him, his nephew and others to the ground and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris. "The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before," Perez said. "This town is hurt real bad."
The explosion knocked out power and could be heard and felt for miles around. Lydia Zimmerman told KWTX-TV that she, her husband and daughter were in their garden in Bynum — 13 miles from West — when they heard multiple blasts.The USGS reported that the blast registered a magnitude 2.1, which is comparable to a minor earthquake. Meanwhile, Friday afternoon, the owner of the plant issued a statement - his first public comment since the blast.
Donald Adair, owner of Adair Grain, Inc., praised the first responders and said the hearts of the company go out to everyone who has suffered. Adair also said one of the plant's employees died in the blast as a volunteer firefighter. Fifty minutes after the fire at the plant began, an explosion was reported in a frantic radio call from the scene. Authorities said there is no indication that the blast was anything but an accident. Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the nearby Waco Police Department said he had no details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.
President Obama, in a statement released Thursday, thanked first responders in the "tight-knit" Texas community. I want to thank the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded," the statement read. "My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue." Even before investigators released a confirmed number of fatalities, the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800.
Gov. Rick Perry told reporters during a press conference Thursday in Austin that the explosion was a "truly nightmare scenario" that likely affected every family in the small community. Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Friday that investigators were still combing through debris and would continue today. Until they're finished, she said residents cannot return to their homes and she had no timetable for completion of the agents' work.
Meanwhile, the mourning already had already begun at a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church the previous night. Swanton said a "small amount of looting" has occurred near the blast site, but he did not provide additional details. He said looters are a "significant concern" to authorities and that at least one person suspected of being a looter was spotting running from a damaged home. "The town is secure," Swanton added.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.
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