WEST — An explosion at a fertilizer plant in West on Wednesday night claimed anywhere from five to 15 lives, injured more than 160 people and sent flames shooting high, leaving the factory in smoldering ruins and causing major damage to surrounding buildings.
Sgt. Patrick Swanton, spokesperson for the Waco Police Department, confirmed early Thursday morning that the blast claimed at least 5-15 lives.
A fire broke out at the plant at 7:29 p.m. to which the West Fire Department was called. While fighting the fire, the plant exploded. Swanton said the first call about the explosion was logged at 7:53 p.m. He confirmed that crews are still searching for 3-5 of the firefighters that responded to the fire.
Swanton said the plant is still on fire, though the fire is contained. The fertilizer plant, on Jerry Mashek Drive, is about 3 miles north of the town of about 2,800, and it is still a possibility that a second tank inside the plant could catch fire.
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More than 160 people were injured in the incident, Swanton Said. Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center iEO Glenn Robinson said early Thursday morning that the center had treated more than 100 of those injured and no deaths have occurred at Hillcrest. Robinson said 14 of the hospital's cases are considered serious and may require admission to the hospital.
Two cases were sent to a specialized pediatric unit at McLane Children's Hospital in Temple. There were blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds, and a lot of lacerations and cuts, Robinson said.
The hospital heard of the explosion at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Robinson said. At 8:02 p.m., Hillcrest went to 'code green' status, calling all off-duty workers back in. The hospital received its first patient from the scene at 8:15 p.m. The hospital ceased its 'code green' status at 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
More than 60 victims were seen at Parkland hospital in Waco, too.
People were first treated for injuries on the floodlit high school football field in West until the second tank in the fertilizer plant was recognized as a hazard. After that, people were told to evacuate the area immediately.
Air quality is no longer a concern, Swanton said.
"There is no threat to safety from the smoke of the fire," he said.
The scene of the explosion is being treated as a crime scene until investigators are able to enter the plant.
"I have no indication that this was anything other than industrial fire. It is better to treat it as a crime scene and then call it a industrial fire later," Swanton said.
"We always start out looking the worst scenario."
What they saw
DPS trooper D.L. Lewis said this is "an unbelievable tragedy," and likened the blast aftermath to Iraq or the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the 1996 bombing.
Emergency workers are searching door to door throughout the night for victims of the powerful blast, which was felt as far north as Arlington and sent a mushroom cloud high into the sky. Lewis said 75 to 100 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the town of fewer than 3,000 people.
"I saw homes burning. Some homes were leveled," Swanton said. "It was almost tornadic."
West Mayor Tommy Muska, a volunteer firefighter, was on his way to the plant to fight the fire when the explosion occurred.
"[It] blew my hat off," he said. "[The plant] was fully engulfed in flames."
Buildings in a five-block radius, including a nursing home with about 130 residents, were significantly damaged, he said. West Middle School on West Shook Street also burned.
"We need your prayers. There's a lot of people that I'm sure are not going to be here tomorrow," West Mayor Tommy Muska said at an 11 p.m. news conference.
Toxic gas and weather conditions are still major concerns, Swanton said.
Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement.
"We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."
West's kolache bakeries are a popular stop on Interstate 35. Several injured people came to the Czech Stop bakery, said Barbara Schissler, president of the store.
"There have been many injuries," she said by phone.
"It's just crazy here. Like a war zone."
As she talked, emergency sirens could be heard continuously in the background.
Texas Department of Public Safety troopers were using their squad cars to transport injured people, Gayle Scarbrough, a spokeswoman for the department's Waco office, told a Waco TV station.
She said six helicopters were also en route to help.
It could not be learned immediately what kind of chemicals might be at the plant.
Beverly Nunley, the Czech Stop's store manager, said the blast was so powerful that it rattled the walls, which knocked signs and framed pictures of celebrities to the floor.
"We've been told to shut our gas pumps off," Nunley said
West, in McLennan County, is 68 miles south of Fort Worth.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.