A massive explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, injuring more than 100 and leaving many feared dead.
Authorities were bracing to find more victims in collapsed buildings, which rescuers could not approach because of the raging flames and dangerous chemicals.
The blast happened about 8 p.m. in West, a town of 2,800 about 20 miles north of Waco. It was unclear what had triggered it.
Mayor Tommy Muska, who is a volunteer firefighter, told CNN that he was responding to the blaze and was two blocks away from the plant when it exploded.
“I’ve just never seen an explosion like that before. It was just a ball of fire,” he said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb went off; it was just a big old mushroom cloud.”
D.L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at least 100 people had been injured and an unknown number of people had been killed. As many as 75 houses were damaged and a 50-unit apartment building looked like a “skeleton standing up,” he said.
A 133-person nursing home was near the blast. Its residents had been evacuated to the community center.
“I searched some houses earlier tonight. Massive,” Wilson said of the damage. “Just like Iraq; just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.”
Wilson likened the chemicals used in the 1995 Oklahoma City blast to the chemicals at the plant when it exploded.
The blaze went unfought as firefighters focused on rescuing victims and survivors and as officials evacuated an eight- to 10-block area around the plant for fear of toxins in the air.
Wilson said that half the city had been evacuated and that the other half might need to be evacuated if the winds shifted.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary no-fly zone over the site, with only law enforcement and medical aircraft allowed. Other aircraft were to keep at least five miles away.
Several firefighters were reported among those injured during the explosion, the Dallas Morning News reported. CNN said two were dead.
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that the blast “was like being in a tornado. Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole Earth shook.”
Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western hotel in West, told the Morning News, “It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonia nitrate, and it exploded.”
What caused the conflagration could not be confirmed, however.
West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report to the Environmental Protection Agency and local officials, according to the Morning News. In the report, the company said it had no fire or explosive risks.
The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.
The hellish scene drew swarms of emergency crews from surrounding communities as the wounded were taken by car, ambulance and helicopter to hospitals in Waco and Dallas.
“Surreal scene in West,” one Waco police spokesman tweeted. “Helicopters hanging over the city fire police ambulances everywhere.”
Forty-five minutes later, he added, “Very hectic still. Trying to secure surrounding neighborhoods and still evac injured.”
Emergency officials had to draw back from the blaze over fears that a second supply tank at the plant could detonate. Initially, triage was set up on a local football field, then moved to the West Community Center.
Mackenzie Wernet, 17, was sitting down for dinner with her family shortly before 8 p.m. when they saw flames from the fertilizer plant out their window. They fled in their truck with five passengers and a dog. Two minutes later came the explosion, Wernet said.
“It was a big blast ... and our truck rattled like an 18-wheeler had hit us, or lightning hit us,” she said. “We found out which way the wind was blowing and we went the opposite direction,” fearing the chemicals from the plant would drift over them.
Cheryl Marak, whose husband is a volunteer firefighter, was standing outside her home 2 ½ blocks from the plant, watching the flames engulf it, when the explosion hit.
“It knocked me down; it knocked me back,” she told CNN. “The whole road just picked up. It was horrible.”
Marak said her house was destroyed in the blast. “I had my dogs in the house; it killed my dogs,” she said tearfully.
She fled to her brother’s home a couple miles outside town, but told CNN that her husband, Marty, was still near the scene.
“I’m begging, begging him to come home,” she said. “He said he can’t, he has to stay with his guys.”
By Matt Pearce - Los Angeles Times (MCT)
Pearce reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Marisa Gerber and Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.
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