Rescue workers were on Thursday night picking through the devastation caused by an explosion at a Texas fertiliser plant that destroyed scores of homes and killed up to 15 people.
The blast devastated a large section of West, a small town around 20 miles north of Waco, leveling buildings and leaving more that 160 people injured. A number of firefighters were missing.
Authorities warned that the number of victims could rise. “It’s going to take time before we can say that everyone is accounted for,” said Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The blast occurred at about 7.50pm local time on Wednesday night, when the town’s small team of volunteer fire-fighters were tackling a blaze at the West Fertiliser Company plant. “It was a like a nuclear bomb went off,” said the mayor of West, Tommy Muska. The explosion registered as a 2.1 magnitude seismic event, and was felt for miles around.
Officials said earlier on Thursday that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast. Reyes would not give a figure, but said: “We are still in the search and rescue phase, looking for individuals.”
The condition of some of the buildings destroyed or severely damaged in the blast made it impossible to calculate accurately the number of fatalities, he said.
One of the victims who died in the blast was named as Kenny Harris, an off-duty fireman, who lived locally and worked in Dallas.
It is thought that the blast was caused when a tank of fertiliser exploded. Official records showed that up to 54,000lbs of anhydrous ammonia were stored at the plant, and that it was fined twice in recent years for various deficiencies.
Authorities were in the process of evacuating residents, including a nearby nursing home, when the explosion happened. It is thought that some 50 to 75 properties were damaged by the blast.
Among the buildings hit was an apartment complex. DL Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Public Safety Department, told Reuters that it had been reduced to “a skeleton standing up”. A middle school in West was also badly damaged.
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, spoke of seeing “utter devastation” in West after touring the site by helicopter.
“Immediately next to the explosion are railroad tracks. They were basically fused together,” he said.
“On the other side was a playground. I have no idea if anyone was playing there at that time, what I can tell you was on that playground was utter devastation.”
The shell of the wrecked apartment complex, he said, “looked like it was a bombing site like you’d see in Baghdad. It was utterly destroyed.”
He also spoke of seeing two wrecked schools, one with its gymnasium roof imploded. “Had this explosion taken place in school hours there would have been mass devastation of children. Thank God that did not happen.”
But, he added: “You can see hope in the eyes of the rescue workers. You can see already the community working to get itself back together.”
There was evidence of damage all over the town, which is known locally as West-comma-Texas, to avoid confusion between this central-state town and the geographical location of west Texas. It has about 2,800 residents, many of Czech heritage.
Matt Nors said he felt the blast at his home, five miles away. “The first thing that went into my mind was a nuclear bomb,” he told the Guardian. “I was standing in my garage flipping meat on the grill. The shock wave felt like somebody hit me in the gut.”
Shivering from the cold as he stood outside the family’s restaurant, Nors Sausage and Burger House, Nors said his sister had had a lucky escape. She lived within 500 yards of the blast. “I haven’t seen the house but supposedly it’s demolished,” he said.
Nors said residents of West, which depends heavily on the agriculture industry, had never considered the potential danger of living so close to the plant. “It’s never been a concern. This was never even a thought, an issue,” he said.
His father, Bernie, said that he knew four firefighters who were believed to have been killed. “They were fighting the fire when it blew up.” He saw the explosion from his home four miles away.
Erick Perez was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. At first, the basketball players thought little of the blaze, but after half an hour, the smoke changed colour, he told the Associated Press. Then the blast came, and he was thrown to the ground. “The explosion was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said.
Standing outside The Village Shoppe clasping a broom, Joyce Beaubien worried that she had not been able to make contact with a friend and former neighbor who works at the plant. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with her,” Beaubien said. “It’s really devastating for a little town like this where nothing ever happens – except sometimes a person might get a little drunk.”
Debby Marak, 58, a teacher, told AP that she was in her car when the plant exploded. “It was like being in a tornado. Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole earth shook.”
Phil Calvin, fire chief of nearby Navarro Mills, said his son Perry had been one of the first volunteers to respond to the call for assistance and had been missing since just after the explosion. Perry had been taking an emergency medical training class at the nursing home across the street from the plant when the group received the call. “We don’t know anything yet,” Calvin said. “We just know that he’s missing.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that it had fined the plant’s owners $2,300 in 2006 for failing to have in place a risk management assessment that met federal standards. An EPA official said: “They certified that they had corrected the deficiency.”
A later emergency plan, submitted by West Fertiliser Company to the EPA and seen by the Dallas Morning News, stated that up to 54,000lb of anhydrous ammonia was stored on the site. But it said that there was no risk of fire or explosion, and that the worst-case scenario would be a short release of ammonia gas that would not cause any deaths or injuries.
Records reviewed by the Associated Press show the US pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant’s ammonia tanks were not properly labeled.
The last visit to the plant by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ensures workplaces are safe for America’s 7 million employees, was in 1985 when it noted one serious violation and two other violations.
The Texas attorney general Greg Abbot told reporters at an afternoon press conference in West that it was too early to talk about whether anybody might be held criminally negligent for the blast. “Our focus right now is on trying to help the families who were affected by this,” he said. “We’ll have to leave to another day issues such as [this]”
But he warned that legal action would be taken against any businesses that pushed up prices illegally. “If anyone tries to profiteer off this tragedy by hiking up prices for basic needs and necessities, they will be facing the wrong end of a lawsuit from the Texas state attorney general,” he said.
President Barack Obama, who was preparing for a prayer service in Boston for the victims of the marathon bombings, sent a message of condolence to West. “A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives,” he said.
The blocks surrounding the plant remain closed off. Emergency workers continued a search and rescue operation, scouring the rubble for survivors.