WEST — Rescuers were conducting another door-to-door search early Thursday for the living and the dead in areas damaged by a massive fertilizer plant explosion in West that left more than 170 injured and may have killed dozens.
As of 6:45, officials say five to fifteen people are believed to be dead.
Six firefighters and two paramedics are confirmed dead and seven nursing home residents were missing after the blast according to West EMS Director Dr. George Smith, who said earlier Wednesday night as many as 60 or 70 people may have died in the blast.
One police officer was also still reporting missing.
Smith said early Thursday morning he expects more bodies will be found during the search of damaged and destroyed homes.
He said a city official was also missing.
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton confirmed there were deaths, but said during a news conference early Thursday he did not know how many, reiterating a statement by Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson, who said during a news conference late Wednesday night the number of dead is unknown.
“We do have confirmed fatalities,” Wilson said.
“It’s going to be a number.”
He said the blast caused “a tremendous amount of injuries,” and estimated the number hurt at more than 170 in some reports.
West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion [PHOTOS]
The blast ripped a 50-unit apartment building apart, leaving little more than a skeleton, Wilson said.
Reports earlier Wednesday night indicated that some residents of the building were trapped including two children, but additional information wasn’t immediately available.
A nearby nursing home was also damaged and the 133 residents were evacuated, he said.
Some were injured, but he didn’t have a count.
He compared the damage to the April 19, 1995 explosion that ripped a side off the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited the plant for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006.
The agency investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint from a resident 11 days earlier about a strong ammonia smell.
The scene of the explosion will be treated like a crime scene until they can prove it was an industrial accident.
The McLennan County Sheriff’s office is investigating the deaths while the ATF is investigating the fire at the plant.
TCEQ personnel were positioned within a quarter mile of the site early Thursday morning and were monitoring conditions.
The agency deployed its mobile command post to West and additional staff members will respond from the San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth regions.
A team of federal investigators was also en route to West.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it’s deploying “a large investigation team” to investigate the blast, spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said.
In a statement issued early Thursday, Cohen said the board’s Western regional office director, Don Holmstrom, would lead the team, which is scheduled to arrive at the scene Thursday afternoon.
Brian Mechell of West took a photograph of the fire before the explosion, which was forwarded to News 10 by Tara Gerik of West.
Gerik said the building that’s on fire is called the Dry Barn and that it contained ammonium nitrate.
Anhydrous ammonia tanks are visible to the left of the building.
Fire continued to smolder at the plant early Thursday morning, but Wilson said toxic fumes and concerns about a second explosion made it impossible for firefighters to get close enough to douse the flames.
We’re worried about people right now, not property,” he said.
He estimated the number of homes damaged by the blast at more than 50 and said many more residents were displaced.
“Half of that town over there is totally evacuated,” he said, and it’s possible more evacuations may be necessary as winds shift to the north as a front pushes through overnight.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said at an earlier news conference that he didn’t yet know how many people were hurt or killed in the blast explosion, but later said four or five firefighters are unaccounted for.
He said there was a fire at the plant before the explosion.
Emergency crews from throughout Central Texas responded just before 8 p.m. Wednesday after the explosion, which was reported at around 7:50 p.m. in a frantic radio call from the scene of the fire at West Fertilizer at 1471 Jerry Mashek Dr. just off Interstate 35.
The resulting fire spread to the Middle School and to a nearby nursing home.
The blast was felt throughout the city and as far away as Hillsboro, Whitney and Blum.
Most of the injuries resulted from debris being thrown from the blast, glass, doors and other shrapnel, authorities said.
Everyone within one mile of the fire was ordered to evacuate.
Numerous injuries were reported and multiple ambulances were requested.
About 60 people had been taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center by shortly before 10 p.m.
By 10:45 p.m. 61 injured victims had been admitted to Hillcrest, 44 of whom were in serious condition.
Scott & White said at just before 1 a.m. Thursday it has received five patients, three at Scott & White Memorial Hospital, and two at McLane Children’s Hospital.
Another patient was en route to the children’s hospital.
Two of the four patients were in critical condition, the hospital said, but information about the conditions of the other three wasn’t available.
“The hospital remains open and operating while the Emergency Department staff make preparations to evaluate and treat arriving victims. As the Level 1 trauma center for the region, Scott & White Hospital – Temple is communicating and coordinating with emergency responders out of Waco to provide care for victims,” a spokesman said.
Providence Health Center in Waco had treated 62 patients by 1 a.m. Thursday and three more were in triage.
Twelve were admitted, one in critical condition.
“Most patients have moderate injuries, including abrasions, cuts, bruises, broken bones and respiratory distress. We have not had any confirmed casualties,” the hospital said.
Nine burn victims were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the area looked like a war zone after the blast, which had a magnitude of 2.1, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building in 1995 produced a blast with 3.0-magnitude.
“The magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event,” the USGS said on its website.
Department of Public Safety troopers transported some victims to hospitals in patrol cars, said Gayle Scarbrough at the DPS Communications Center in Waco.
A triage area was first established at the intersection of Haven and North Reagan Streets, but it was later moved to Marable Street and Meadow Drive because of the potentially toxic smoke from the fire.
As many as a dozen helicopters were sent to the area and were landing at West High School stadium and at least two-dozen ambulances were waiting there to transport victims to hospitals.
The staging area was later moved because of the threat of an explosion from a second burning tank.
The explosion knocked out power to a large area of the community.
Utility provider Oncor’s online outage site showed more than a thousand customers without power.
Interstate 35 remained open, but a number of emergency vehicles were on the highway headed to West and from West to hospitals.
The Texas Department of Transportation advised motorists to avoid the area.
“I-35 is likely to become clogged as the emergency vehicles come and go, and as the inevitable rubbernecking begins in passing traffic,” spokeswoman Jodi Whatley said.
“Please try to use alternate routes and leave I-35 as open as possible as the ambulances try to get the injured to hospitals and then come back to help more victims. Because of the force of the explosion, many businesses, homes, and possibly a nursing home and school are destroyed or damaged. Power and phone service is out in much of the town,” she said.
A woman who was passing through West on Interstate 35 at the time of the explosion said she and her boyfriend saw a fireball 100-feet wide shoot into the air.
A man who lives 15 miles northwest of Hillsboro felt the concussion from the explosion.
Army Sgt. Rocky J. Havens said in an e-mail he felt the shock in Italy, north of Hillsboro.
Tonya Harris of Groesbeck said in an e-mail she heard the explosion.
“My husband and l were cleaning up the kitchen after supper, and heard what we thought was someone running into our house. It shook our windows and doors. We immediately ran outside looking for the worst,” she said.
Crystal Dahlman of Blum said in an e-mail, “The explosion shook and rumbled my house worse than thunder.”
Brad Smith of Waxahachie said he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.
Lydia Zimmerman of Bynum was working in the garden with her husband and daughter at the time of the explosion.
“It sounded like three bombs going off very close to us,” she said.
Gulf war veteran Paul L. Manigrasso felt the blast in Waxahachie.
“Based on my naval experience…we knew immediately what it was, but cannot believe it occurred 40 miles away,” he said.
Chris Moore was at a Wednesday night prayer service in Navarro Mills about 35 miles from West.
He said the blast rocked the church.
“We are praying for our neighbors in West right now,” he said.
Waco lawyer Walter Skip Reaves lives about 3/4 mile from the fertilizer plant.
He said the blast sounded like a bomb.
All of the windows and doors in his house were blown out, as were the windows of the rest of the homes in his neighborhood, he said.
Gary and Donna Redding felt the blast in their home in Combine just outside of Seagoville.
“We heard what sounded like thunder that rattled our storm doors and shook the house slightly for a few seconds,” they said in an e-mail.
Freshman State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, issued a statement expressing sympathy to victims of the blast.
“While little is still known at this time regarding details of this horrific incident, we must continue to keep all those impacted in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
“As we continue to gather details on this tragic event, I have full confidence in our first responders and stand ready to assist in any way possible,” he said.
The cause of the explosion is unknown, officials told CNN Wednesday night.
If you are seeking information about loved ones within the area of the explosion, contact 254-202-1100.
Stay tuned to NEWS 92 FM for the very latest on this developing story.