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Texas Fertilizer Plant Blast Devastates Tight-Knit Town

Up to 15 feared dead. Rescue efforts continue amid fears that toll could rise

By Tom Dart in West, Texas and Matt Williams in New York

Rescue workers were fighting through the devastation caused by an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that destroyed scores of homes and killed up to 15 people.

Barklee Sanders/YouTube

The blast wrecked a large section of West, a small town around 20 miles north of Waco, leveling buildings and leaving more that 160 people injured. Police estimated that between five and 15 people died. Up to five firefighters were missing on Thursday.

As acrid smoke hung over the area, authorities warned that the number of victims could rise. "We do not know how many folks may still be trapped," Waco police sergeant William Swanton said in a news briefing on Thursday.

The blast happened at about 8pm on Wednesday night, when the town's small team of volunteer firefighters were tackling a blaze at the West Fertilizer Company plant. Video footage showed the moment of the blast. "It was a like a nuclear bomb went off," West's mayor Tommy Muska told reporters. The explosion registered as a 2.1 magnitude seismic event, and was felt for miles around.

It is thought that the explosion was caused when a tank of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer, exploded. Official records showed that up to 54,000lbs of the chemical were stored at the plant. It was fined in 2006 for deficiencies in its emergency plan.

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 a 50-unit apartment complex. Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D L Wilson told Reuters that it had been reduced to "a skeleton standing up". A middle school in West was also badly damaged.

Matt Nors said he felt the blast from 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 a lucky escape. "My sister was really close to it," he said, adding that she lives within 500 yards of the blast. "I haven't seen the house but supposedly it's demolished," he said. Nors said residents 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 had been killed. "They were fighting the fire when it blew up." Bernie Nors, who lives four miles away, saw the explosion. "When it blew up you could see the shock wave hit the wheat field – boom," he said.

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.

Debby Marak, 58, a teacher, said she noticed a lot of smoke coming from the area near the plant. When she drove over to investigate, two boys ran toward her screaming that authorities told them to leave because the plant was going to explode. She said she drove about a block before the blast happened.

"It was like being in a tornado. Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole earth shook."

Her husband, who was in another part of town when the blast hit, told her a huge fireball rose like "a mushroom cloud".

Phil Calvin, fire chief of nearby Navarro Mills Volunteer fire department, told the Guardian his son Perry was one of the first volunteers to respond to the call for assistance Wednesday evening and has 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 told the Guardian. "We just know that he's missing." 

The US Environmental Protection Agency 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 told the Guardian: "We conducted an inspection of the RMP [risk management plan] in March 2006. The facility was fined $2,300 and they certified that they had corrected the deficiency."

A later emergency plan, submitted by West Fertilizer Co to the EPA and seen by the Dallas Morning News, stated that up to 54,000 lbs 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.

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.

He thanked first responders who had "worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded."

The blocks surrounding the plant remain closed off on Thursday, with police preventing traffic from passing. The main roads were busy with traffic, media trucks and American Red Cross incident support units mingling with a steady stream of pickup trucks.

Emergency workers continued a search and rescue operation, scouring the rubble for survivors. "There is a huge organization of mixed groups that are working together to find survivors, to find people who are injured," Swanton said.

Three hospitals in Waco and Dallas were treating survivors on Thursday. "We are seeing a lot of lacerations and orthopedic-type injuries … things you would expect in an explosion," said David Argueta, vice-president of operations at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco.

Swanton said investigators would have to examine if the fire was the result of an accidental chemical reaction, or an act of arson. "We are not indicating that it is a crime, but we don't know," he told reporters."We are way too early in the investigation to speculate on causes."

The fire was brought under control by 11 p.m. on Wednesday but the rubble was still smoldering on Thursday. Residents were warned to stay indoors due to the threat of further explosions and toxic leaks of ammonia.

Swanton indicated that the threat had been reduced. "There is still a concern. I do not think it is a significant issue, a significant concern," he said. "There is nothing out of control at this point. There is no fire out of control, there is no chemical escape."

He described West as a "tight-knit" community, adding that the number of people helping the search operation ran into the hundreds. But there had been reported instances of looting in the aftermath of the blast, law enforcement officials said.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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