West plant still smoldering, DPS trooper says damage 'just like Iraq'

West explosion

Credit: WFAA

The West, Texas community center became a chaotic emergency command post in the hours after a fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013.

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by TODD UNGER and STEVE STOLER

WFAA

Posted on April 17, 2013 at 11:55 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 3 at 6:19 PM

WEST, Texas — A devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked the town of West, Texas, 19 miles north of Waco, on Wednesday evening.

"We do have confirmed fatalities, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said at a midnight news conference, "We have a tremendous amout of injuries ... over 100 injuries at this time."

Wilson said the West Fertilizer plant was still smoldering four hours after the explosion, which was so large the U.S. Geological Survey classified it as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.

He said firefighters had to step back from battling the blaze because of concerns about chemicals that may be lingering in the air. According to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the plant worked with anhydrous ammonia, a colorless gas. 

Wilson said half the town was evacuated –– if the wind shifts to the north, Wilson feared the other half would need to leave as well.

"There still are other ingredients there on the facility so we don't want that to explode again," the trooper said. "We're worried about people, not property." 

Wilson would not confirm or deny an earlier report that the number of deaths could be in the range of 60 to 70. 

He said at least 50 to 75 homes had been damaged, and that an apartment complex with 50 units was "just a skeleton standing up."

Wilson said the damage was massive. "Just like Iraq; just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City."

Hillcrest Baptist Hospital in Waco treated about 94 patients, said spokesman Glenn Robinson. He estimated about 12 to be critically wounded and the others to have more minor injuries, such as lacerations. He said many patients had already been discharged by 1 a.m. and expected the majority to be allowed to leave by the morning. 

Some individuals were still being transported in school buses early Thursday morning.

"That's an encouraging number because that means we've been able to treat and release a great number that we've already seen this evening," Robinson said. 

While the outpouring of support from emergency officials was encouraging, Wilson said enough are in the town.  

"We are overflowing with help," he said. "We do not need any more help." 

Mayor Tommy Muska said at 11 p.m. that most of the fires resulting from the explosion were contained. He could not confirm a death toll. He said a number of volunteer firefighters who had responded to the initial blaze at the fertilizer plant remained unaccounted for.

Muaka added that 133 people at a nearby nursing home all had to be evacuated.

"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," said one man who was looking for a lost relative on Willie Nelson Road.

Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson (R-Waco) said he has toured the damaged area and said it looked like a "war zone." He said he's spoken with representatives from Gov. Rick Perry's office and DPS and praised their effort. 

A large swath of the small town with a population of 2,800 was damaged. Fearing additional explosions, officials ordered residents to evacuate.

The blast around 8 p.m. was at the West Fertilizer plant at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, about a half-mile east of Interstate 35.

Shortly before 10 p.m., a dispatcher was advising emergency crews to move away from the burning plant due to concern about chemicals in unexploded tanks.

A few minutes later, WFAA's Todd Unger reported hearing more explosions north of the plant.

A triage center that was set up at the West High School football field was evacuated because of its proximity to the burning plant. The processing center was moved to the town's community center.

An information hotline was set up for concerned friends and relatives at 254-202-1100. The line was overwhelmed with calls; if you get a busy signal, keep trying.

"There was a huge shock wave," said Mark Licknovsky who works at the Czech Stop, less than one mile away on Interstate 35. "That's when we knew something was serious."

West Town Council member Cheryl Marak told WFAA the blast killed her pets and confirmed heavy damage at the middle school.

Every house within four blocks of the facility was heavily damaged, according to initial reports.

"I can see heavy smoke here; there are emergency crews everywhere," said WFAA Todd Unger as he arrived in the devastated town. "We're looking at a home and it is a total loss. There are flames shooting up 10-15 feet."

An emergency dispatcher appealed for more more help. "I need anybody and everybody," she said.

At least 10 structures were on fire in the town, including a school which is next door to the plant.

Rescue vehicles from North Texas agencies were racing to the scene on I-35.

Schools in West will be closed on Thursday and Friday.

The American Red Cross said teams from Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin will be coordinating with emergency officials in West to provide any needed assistance to town residents who will need help.

Evacuees were being directed to the community center in Abbott, about five miles north of West.

Gov. Rick Perry issued this statement on Wednesday night:

“We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”

The shock wave triggered by the massive explosion was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far away as North Texas.

"I live in Groesbeck," wrote Rayne Sibley on WFAA's Facebook page. "I heard a large boom and my house shook."

Facebook users in Venus, Grandview, Cleburne, Ennis and Ferris also reported feeling the shock wave.

"Shook my doors!" wrote Nancy Procaccini of Combine. "Thought it was earthquake!"

Traffic on I-35 was backed up for miles. Motorists are advised to use alternate routes to make room for emergency traffic.

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