A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked the town of West, north of Waco, causing multiple casualties and leaving people trapped and buildings on fire.
Emergency personnel were bracing for the possibility of dozens of dead in the blast, which was reported at 7:53 p.m. and could be heard 45 miles away in Waxahachie.
Although authorities confirmed that at least five to 15 people had died, shortly before 5 a.m. they were still saying they did not have an official total. They have said they expect to find more bodies as they continue to search the area.
West's EMS director, Dr. George Smith, confirmed after 4 a.m. that two emergency personnel had been killed in the explosion, which occurred at West Fertilizer Co., just off Interstate 35, about 80 miles south of Dallas.
Smith said he could not yet confirm whether three to five firefighters and one police officer who have been reported as missing had died.
Officials said more than 160 people had been treated for injuries at various hospitals, but that number could continue to climb as emergency personnel search for survivors at 5 a.m.
A blaze had broken out earlier at the plant, and the explosion occurred while firefighters were trying to put it out.
“It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonium nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb,” said Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel in West. “I live about a thousand feet from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There’s houses leveled that were right next to it.”
Authorities were evacuating residents of the town of 2,600, including more than 130 occupants of a nearby nursing home badly damaged in the blast that had spread debris across a wide area.
City Council member Al Vanek said a four-block area around the explosion's epicenter was “totally decimated.” Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city’s Murrah Federal Building.
Numerous buildings were on fire, including the nursing home and West Middle School. An emergency dispatcher calling for multiple ambulances said, “We do have a lot of injured here.”
Everything around the plant had been blown apart or collapsed, including a nearby apartment complex with about 50 units that had been destroyed.
Among the damaged buildings were 50 to 75 houses.
“That whole side of town looks like a disaster,” Bill Manolakis said. “Who in their right mind sticks a damn plant next to houses?”
Witnesses described a chaotic scene, with rescuers and evacuees scrambling as traffic backed up for miles on I-35 and livestock ran loose.
A triage center that had been set up at West High School was being moved after emergency personnel became worried that harmful fumes might spread. Authorities were also monitoring a second tank near the blast site that was prompting concerns of another explosion.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said residents were bracing for news of neighbors' deaths.
“We’ve got a lot of people who are hurt, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, who aren’t gonna be here tomorrow,” he said. “We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for. That’s the most important thing right now.”
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town’s department went to the plant to fight the blaze, which officials said was reported at 7:29 p.m. The blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
Muska said the main fire was under control by 11 p.m., but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant’s ruins.
The disaster prompted a large-scale deployment of law enforcement and emergency personnel from the region, with hospitals and fire-rescue personnel in Dallas among those ready to help. Hospitals as far away as Temple had been asked to prepare for hundreds of patients, and numerous emergency helicopters had been dispatched to assist, though high winds were hampering their flights.
Department of Public Safety troopers took some victims to hospitals in Waco, which is about 20 miles south of West.
Glenn Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, said the hospital had received nearly 100 patients who arrived in ambulances and private vehicles.
He said more than 40 people were in serious condition, with injuries including burns, broken bones and large lacerations. But he said he expected most patients would be released throughout the night.
He said that though some people were still in surgery about 1:30 a.m., "many have already been treated and released."
All the patients who had come to the hospital had survived, Robinson said. Ambulances from across Central Texas had helped transport the patients, and more than 250 off-duty doctors and nurses responded as word of the emergency spread.
Bill Bohannan told the Waco Tribune-Herald he witnessed the devastating blast while visiting his parents’ home near the plant.
“I was standing next to my car with my fiancée, waiting for my parents to come out and [the plant] exploded,” he said. “It knocked us into the car. … Every house within about four blocks is blown apart,” he said.
People as far as 50 miles away reported feeling what seemed like an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the blast generated enough force to register like a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.
Paul Manigrasso, a Gulf War veteran, felt the blast in Waxahachie.
“Based on my naval experience ... we knew immediately what it was but cannot believe it occurred 40 miles away,” he told KWTX-TV.
Andy Bartee of Dallas was driving home from Austin when he stopped at a convenience store about five miles from the explosion. Suddenly the lights went out and the explosion rocked the building.
“You could feel it in your chest and ears,” he said. Ceiling tiles fell and pictures on the wall broke.
“It was pretty nuts,” he said. “It looked like a mushroom cloud. It looked like an atom bomb had been dropped,” Bartee said. “I’ve never seen or felt anything like that.”
Debby Marak said she had seen the plant burning and had driven closer to see what was happening but reversed direction after two boys ran toward her screaming that authorities had told them to flee because the plant was going to explode.
“It was like being in a tornado,” Marak said of the blast that erupted as she was driving away. “Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole Earth shook.”
In the disarray surrounding the explosion, officials were working to get a grasp on the magnitude of the disaster.
The American Red Cross was sending teams from throughout the region and was working to find shelter for the evacuees.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to West, and Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were monitoring developments.
“We are … gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident,” he said. “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 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be investigating the incident, but officials have emphasized that they have not determined whether the incident was anything but an industrial accident. However, authorities have said they will treat the blast zone as a crime scene until they have determined the cause of the explosion for certain.
West is widely known for its annual Westfest, which celebrates the city’s Czech heritage. It’s the home of several well-known bakeries, including the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery.
The disaster was drawing worldwide media attention, as well as widespread expressions of sympathy. Pope Francis issued a request online: "Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families."