Residents of West, Texas, a small farming community located just north of Waco, are trying to pull their lives together this week even as state, federal and local authorities continue to search for the dead, missing and injured, following a fertilizer plant blast that destroyed homes, apartments, a nursing home and a school Wednesday night.
Already authorities place the number of deceased between 5 and 15 and fear the death count may rise rapidly as firemen and rescue workers search through debris at the West Fertilizer Company plant and surrounding homes, businesses and other facilities where the number of injured has reached 160 and continues to climb.
“We are still searching and assisting in the rescue of victims,” reported Waco Police Sergeant Patrick Swanton early Thursday. “Widespread damage has been reported across the community and we don’t know yet how many are still missing, injured or worse.”
Firemen, police officers and rescuers from dozens of communities joined state troopers and National Guardsmen after a blast that was so violent it registered a 2.5 on the Richter scale.
“There was a huge shock wave,” reported a clerk at a convenience store about a mile away from the plant. Other residents in the farming community of less than 3,000 said the blast was like “a bomb went off.”
Fire officials say the blast destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, raised the roof off the local school and dropped it back down, and caused the roof of a nursing home to collapse trapping some elderly residents inside.
“We are still engaged in search and rescue operations,” reported an unidentified rescue worker early Thursday morning. “We will begin recovery operations only after we can determine how many are still buried in debris and locate those we know are missing.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry authorized Texas National Guard units to help with search and rescue operations and to establish air quality monitoring around the community. Officials feared a second ammonia hydroxide storage tank at the plant may be leaking and were concerned both about air quality and the potential for a second blast.
Seeking federal disaster aid
“I have asked the President to join us in declaring a disaster and to provide federal resources to help us in search and rescue and recovery efforts,” Perry said in a mid-morning press conference.
The White House issued a statement Thursday. “Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas,” President Obama said, and he pledged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies would join state and local efforts “to assist Texas officials in their needs such as search and rescue and response operations.”
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials were on the scene Thursday morning trying to gain access to the damaged fertilizer plant and to determine levels of airborne toxins. By late morning TCEQ officials gave the all clear to concerns over ammonia leaking into the air.
At least 75 homes suffered damage from the blast, which erupted after firefighters had arrived at the plant to fight a fire. A few of the homes were totally destroyed, some had their roofs blown off and some had only minor damage. Rescuers in the community say they will need to conduct door-to-door searches before the extent of death and injury is fully known.
Hundreds had been treated at an emergency triage center and residents and emergency workers continued to filter in throughout the morning with reports of various injuries. A spokesman at the triage center said many residents had suffered chemical burns and many others reported injuries as a result of falling debris. By mid-day Thursday 3 to 5 firemen were unaccounted for and feared dead.
Just after midnight nearly half of the community’s 2,800 residents were ordered to evacuate as fire trucks and emergency vehicles from dozens of communities streamed into the town. Traffic along Interstate 35, which connects nearby Waco to Dallas, was closed for about an hour over fears of ammonia hydroxide streaming across the highway.
“It is far too early to know the extent of damage or the numbers of dead or injured,” reported George Smith, the town's director of emergency services.
Rescuers were filtering through debris at a 50-unit apartment complex near the plant that had been largely stripped of its roof and walls and reduced to rubble.
Officials say they are investigating the cause of the fire and explosion and have not ruled out any possibility, but police say they do not suspect the incident is related to the Boston Marathon tragedies earlier this week.