Many feared dead after Texas blast - KPTV - FOX 12

West, TX mayor: 35 dead from fertilizer plant explosion

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A house caught fire due to the plant explosion. (Source: DFW Scanner) A house caught fire due to the plant explosion. (Source: DFW Scanner)
An aerial view of a football field where ambulances set-up emergency care units. The football field was eventually evacuated and the triage relocated. (Source: KTVT/CNN) An aerial view of a football field where ambulances set-up emergency care units. The football field was eventually evacuated and the triage relocated. (Source: KTVT/CNN)
A cloud of smoke rises over a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, TX. (Source: DFW Scanner) A cloud of smoke rises over a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, TX. (Source: DFW Scanner)
The explosion flattened 50 to 75 houses near the plant in a path of destruction of about five blocks. (Source: DFW Scanner) The explosion flattened 50 to 75 houses near the plant in a path of destruction of about five blocks. (Source: DFW Scanner)

WEST, TX (RNN) - President Barack Obama has declared an emergency declaration for West, TX, where a fertilizer plant explosion killed about 35 people and injured more than 160 others.

"I've pledged that the people of West will have the resources they need to rebuild," the president, speaking from the White House said Friday.

The declaration gives FEMA  the authority to "identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.  Emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding."

Of the people killed, West, TX mayor said about 10 were emergency responders, USA Today reported. However, final numbers are still being determined.

"We do not have the exact number of fatalities," Sgt. Jose Reyes said in a news conference. "We are still in the search and rescue phase looking for individuals."

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA will survey the area to see how volatile it is and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will work to determine the cause of the blast.

"The explosion happened in a highly populated neighborhood, it is a volatile situation because it being a fertilizer company, it has the component ammonia nitrate which is a volatile product," McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Thursday "it's way premature" to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.

Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area Thursday during a news conference.

A litany of state and some federal agencies are helping the town of West, according to Perry. Everyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Texas Department of Transportation are helping the town of 2,600.

Sgt. Patrick Swanton reported three to five volunteer firefighters who went to the initial fire call are still missing. One who had been reported missing has been found and is in the hospital with "serious injuries."

Two emergency personnel, who were first responders to the scene, are confirmed dead. More than 160 people were injured in the blast.

According to the Associated Press, at least five people were in critical condition at hospitals in Texas.

"This is a crime scene," Swanton said. "We are not indicating that it is a crime but we don't know, what that means to us is until we know it was an industrial accident, we will work it as crime scene."

It's unknown whether residents are trapped under remnants of destroyed buildings, authorities said early Thursday. But teams continue to comb through the areas filled with debris after the major explosion at West Fertilizer devastated much of the small town's downtown area.

"At this point they are in the continuation mode of search and rescue, which to me means that they are still going out and looking for survivors of the blast from Wednesday evening," Swanton said.

Swanton said homes as far as five blocks away from the blast were leveled.

About 50 to 60 homes were heavily damaged, according to West Mayor Tommy Muska, as well as a nursing home, 50-unit apartment building, businesses and a school. Muska told CNN the explosion was like a nuclear bomb going off.

Representatives of the ATF is joining the sheriff's department and as other government agencies in the investigation of the blast.

The fire call came in at 7:29 p.m. CDT, Swanton said. The explosion was reported at 7:53 p.m.

"On my way in I saw homes that were burning, homes that had significant devastation, bricks were torn off," Swanton said. "It was almost tornadic in effect."

Many people were injured at a nearby nursing home, which was heavily damaged by the blast.

"Most of those people were being evacuated," Swanton said.

Several building fires located near the fertilizer plant have also been reported, and many are still burning. Other buildings on fire include a school, according to KWTX.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the force of the explosion through the air was greater than a 2.1 earthquake.

The fire is under control, but continued to smolder Thursday. Another factor in the disaster is the potential for toxic fumes.

The plant contains anhydrous ammonia used in the production of fertilizer, the fumes of which are dangerous to breathe.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Because of the risk of poison, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality personnel said they are posted within a quarter-mile of the facility at the request of emergency personnel for safety reasons.

TCEQ are monitoring air quality and assessing other environmental concerns outside the perimeter of the plant, and more environmental responders are being mobilized.

The air around the plant is currently testing clear, Swanton said, and further explosions at this point are unlikely.

The search and rescue operation in the devastated area was also complicated because of structural damage in the buildings and gas lines damaged by the blast. The utilities in the town have been turned off to reduce the chance of injuries.

Swanton said 300 to 400 emergency personnel from Waco, Dallas and surrounding areas were present to deal with the disaster.

"At this point the town is secure. There are plenty of law enforcement individuals stationed around town," he said.

Muska, also a member of the local fire department, was about a block away from the plant when the explosion happened.

"It blew my hat off. Then I heard it. I felt it before I heard it. It blew my rear view mirror off my glass. It was a very powerful explosion," he said.

Glenn Robinson, chief executive officer of Hillcrest Medical Center, said the hospital had admitted 101 patients suffering from injuries such as lacerations, broken bones and head trauma. Five were in intensive care, two in critical conditions.

Early Wednesday night, some patients were suffering from eye irritation as a result of the blast, he said, but as the night wore on, those complaints disappeared.

Nine Hillcrest patients were taken to a burn center in Dallas, and two children were taken to a pediatric hospital.

Hillcrest has set up a hotline for families to inquire about loved ones: 254-202-1100.

Keith Hopkins, Providence Health Center administrator, reports that they are having to decontaminate patients because of the chemicals involved in the explosion. More than 60 people were taken to Providence.

"We need your prayers. There are a lot of people who got hurt … A lot of people won't be here tomorrow," Muska said. 

Swanton said that the Red Cross, other organizations and neighbors were are helping with displaced residents.

"This is a very tight knit, very family packed, very family oriented community," Swanton said. "When you talk about leaning on each other's shoulders, they are absolutely doing that."

A YouTube video has surfaced of a man recording the explosion moments before it occurs. The video may be disturbing for some.

As the events unfolded, people in the area went online to report what was happening. One man posted a photo on Instagram of a giant black cloud that resulted from the explosion.

Kristen Crow, a reporter for the Tribune-Herald tweeted a photo of a triage on a football field. The field was later evacuated and the triage relocated. 

The Associated Press reports West Fertilizer was investigated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 after receiving a complaint of a small ammonia smell.

The town of West has a population of around 3,000 people. It is approximately 19 miles north of Waco, the city where cult leader David Koresh led a 50-day standoff against the FBI that ended in death on April 19, 1993.

Two years after Waco, on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was destroyed with a bomb that used fertilizer, killing 168.

And in what could be a tragic coincidence, Tuesday's disaster occurred the day after the anniversary of a similar fertilizer explosion in Texas City, TX, which took place on April 16, 1947.

The official death toll of that explosion was 581, making it the deadliest industrial accident in American history.

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