WEST, Texas (AP) — A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday injured dozens of people and killed an unknown number of others, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin and leveling buildings for blocks in every direction.
The explosion at West Fertilizer in downtown West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened around 7 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. It sent flames shooting high into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
A member of the city council, Al Vanek, said a four-block area around the explosion was "totally decimated." 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.
Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said just after midnight that an unknown number of people had died and more than 100 were injured.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs "your prayers." A search for survivors continued throughout the night, as emergency workers went house to house and business to business looking for people trapped in the rubble.
"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."
The town's volunteer firefighters responded to a call at the plant about 6 p.m., said Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton. Muska was among them, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 50 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
Five or six volunteer firefighters were at the plant fire when the explosion happened, Muska said, and not all have been accounted for.
The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., Wilson said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins.
Speaking to reporters around 2 a.m., Swanton said authorities did not yet know if the fire and the subsequent explosion was an accident or intentionally set.
Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene in the hours after the blast, as fires continued to smolder in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings. Aerial footage showed injured people being treated on the flood-lit football field that had been turned into a staging area.
Vanek said first-responders treated victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center. Swanton said early Thursday morning the injured were being taken to hospitals in Waco and a triage center at high school in nearby Abbott.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told the Waco Tribune-Herald the hospital had treated more than 100 people, including 14 who would likely be admitted, but that none had died. He said the injuries included cuts, broken bones and others expected from flying debris. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.
Robinson told the paper 30 people were also treated at Providence Hospital in Waco, and several others were sent to the burn unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Two children were taken to McLane Children's Hospital in Temple, he said.
Among the damaged buildings were 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that Wilson 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.
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