WEST, Texas – Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thursday for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris while the community awaited word on the number of dead.
Initial reports put the fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.
A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and crumpled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away from the town about 20 miles north of Waco.
Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.
The explosion came on a grim anniversary for the Waco area. Twenty years ago this week, 76 members of the fringe Branch Davidians religious group were killed after setting fire to their building when federal agents attempted to serve a search warrant.
There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, Swanton said.
The explosion was apparently touched off by a fire, but there was no indication what sparked the blaze. The company had been cited by regulators for what appeared to be minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.
The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape Thursday was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.
Firefighter Darryl Hall choked up as he described the search.
“You’re strong through it because that’s your job. That’s what you’ve been trained to do. But you’re reminded of the tragedy and your family. And that it could be you,” Hall said. “Then it’s a completely different story.”
While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant’s huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.
“It’s still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, later adding that she wasn’t sure when her team would be able to start its investigation.
The precise death toll was uncertain. Three to five volunteer firefighters initially were believed to be among the dead, which authorities said could number as many as 15. But the state Department of Public Safety later said the number of fatalities couldn’t be confirmed.
The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department said one of its off-duty firefighters, Capt. Kenny Harris, was among those killed. Harris, 52, lived in West and had decided to lend a hand to the volunteers battling the blaze.
The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. A few people were reported in intensive care and several more in critical condition.
First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs. Many were dazed and panicked and did not know what happened.
William Burch and his wife, a retired Air Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first responders arrived. They searched separate wings and found residents in wheelchairs trapped in their rooms. The halls were dark, and the ceilings had collapsed. Water filled the hallways. Electrical wires hung eerily from the ceilings.
Gov. Rick Perry called the explosion “a truly nightmare scenario for the community” and said he had been in touch with President Obama, who promised his administration’s assistance with operations on the ground.
Authorities said the plant handles both the fertilizers anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, the latter of which was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and several other attacks, such as the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.
Ammonium nitrate makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, he said.
“The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen,” he said. “That really happens almost instantaneously, and that’s what gives the tremendous force of the explosion.”