A fertilizer plant in West, Texas, just north of Waco, caught fire last night… and then exploded with a force that many observers compared to a small nuclear bomb. Not many observers were able to remain standing after the blast, which was heard up to fifty miles away. Astounding video shot by an observer last night captures the sudden terror of the moment:
A four-block area around the plant was wiped out, including an apartment building that was blasted down to its skeletal framework:
Casualty estimates have varied wildly. A horrifying early report last night quoted the director of EMS services in West, Dr. George Smith, saying “as many as 60 or 70 people may have died in the blast.” As of this morning, officials were saying 5 to 15 fatalities may have resulted from the explosion, with some estimates that over 150 people were injured. There were so many injuries that they were being driven in the back seats of cars to a triage center constructed in a nearby football field.
The Associated Press reports that among those believed to be dead are “a group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. about an hour before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early Thursday morning.”
West mayor Tommy Muska asked for prayers as search and rescue operations continue: “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. We???re gonna search for everybody. We???re gonna make sure everybody???s accounted for. That???s the most important thing right now.”
Eyewitness testimony from the area of the explosion:
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 4 feet (over a meter) 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 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 about 20 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
More from CNN:
Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and he felt his house shake from the explosion.
“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorm was going to come though. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?'”
Back in West, officials painted a grim picture.
“There are lots of houses that are leveled within a two-block radius,” [EMS director George] Smith said. “A lot of other homes are damaged as well outside that radius.”
The cause of the fire and explosion remains unknown, but the authorities stress that there is no reason to suspect arson or terrorism at this time. In addition to concerns about a detonation at the one intact fertilizer tank remaining on site, there are fears that ammonia gas may be spread by shifting winds, calling for further evacuation of the surrounding area.
Update: More images… a house set ablaze in West:
Ambulances arrive at the triage area set up in a football field:
This looks like the ruins of the fertilizer plant itself:
Another view of the cloud rising up from the explosion:
Update: Courtesy of Twitchy, a touching message of support from one hard-working team of first responders to another:
Our thoughts are with emergency responders and medical staff working the West, TX disaster.
??? Boston EMS (@BOSTON_EMS) April 18, 2013
Response from the office of Texas governor Rick Perry:
And ours w/ you. Thank you! ???@boston_ems: Our thoughts are with emergency responders and medical staff working the West, TX disaster.???
??? Office of Gov Perry (@TexGov) April 18, 2013