Rescue crews searched the wreckage of a fertilizer plant and dozens of demolished homes for bodies yesterday after a fiery explosion injured more than 160 people and prompted the evacuation of half a small Texas town.
Police initially estimated that five to 15 people had died in Wednesday night’s blast, but officials said the death toll could climb as the search continued. They were treating the blast site as a possible crime scene.
A fire had broken out at the plant before the 8pm explosion rocked West, a town of 2,700 people about 32km north of Waco and 130km south of Dallas.
Witness Kevin Smith told CBS News he had just climbed the stairs to the second floor of his home when he felt the blast.
“The house exploded. It was just a bright flash and a roar, I thought it was lightning striking the house,” Smith said. “I felt myself flying through the air about 10 feet [3m], and it took a second or two to realize that the roof had caved in on me, so I knew it wasn’t lightning.”
Light rain was falling and winds had picked up to 35kph yesterday morning, conditions that could complicate the recovery effort or prompt additional evacuations.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. “It looks like a war zone with all the debris.”
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco admitted 28 of more than 100 people it treated, with five in the intensive care unit, vice president of operations David Argueta said.
The explosion came two days before the 20th anniversary of a fire in nearby Waco that engulfed a compound inhabited by David Koresh and his followers in the Branch Davidian sect, ending a siege by federal agents.
About 82 members of the sect and four federal agents died at Waco.
Ground motion from the blast, triggered by a fire of unknown origin at the West Fertilizer Co plant, registered as a magnitude 2.1 tremor and created a jolt felt in Dallas and beyond, the US Geological Survey reported.
Waco Police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said investigators had not yet established what caused the fire or blast.
“We are not indicating that it is a crime, but we don’t know,” Swanton said early yesterday, nine hours after the blast. “What that means to us is that until we know it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene.”
West Mayor Tommy Muska said five or six volunteer firefighters, who were among the first to arrive at the fertilizer plant, were missing.
Firefighters had been battling the fire, and evacuating nearby houses and a nursing home for about 20 minutes before the explosion occurred.
Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said about half the town, eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that “we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town” if winds shift.
However, emergency management personnel said there was no immediate danger to the public from the smoke, Swanton said.
Wilson said 50 to 75 houses were damaged by the explosion and fire, and a nearby 50-unit apartment complex had been reduced to “a skeleton standing up.”
Muska put the number of destroyed homes at 60 to 80.
Three hospitals in Waco and Dallas reported treating more than 160 injuries from the blast.
“We are seeing a lot of lacerations and orthopedic-type injuries ... things you would expect in an explosion,” Argueta said.