Blast at West fertilizer plant kills at least 2, injures many

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Information number on patients at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco: 254-202-1100

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An explosion at a fertilizer plant in West killed at least two people Wednesday night, injured scores and sent flames shooting high into the night sky, leaving the factory in smoldering ruins and causing major damage to surrounding buildings.

The number of dead could rise much higher, perhaps to 70, Dr. George Smith, the town's emergency management director, told CNN.

"That's a really rough number," he said. "I'm getting that figure from firefighters. We don't know yet.

"We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead."

The blast at West Fertilizer, about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m.

At an 11 p.m. news conference, Mayor Tommy Muska said: "We need your prayers. There's a lot of people that I'm sure are not going to be here tomorrow."

The plant was already "fully engulfed in flames" when the explosion happened. Muska, a volunteer firefighter, said he was on his way to fight the fire before "the very powerful" explosion occurred shortly before 8 p.m.

The blast "blew my hat off," he said.

Buildings in a five-block radius, including a nursing home with about 130 residents, were significantly damaged, he said. West Middle School on West Shook Street burned.

The fires were under control by late evening, Muska said.

But a big concern was toxic gas. It could not be learned immediately what kind of chemicals might be at the plant.

"The most important thing is to see that everyone is accounted for," Muska said.

Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.

"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement.

"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."

For about two hours after the blast, TV helicopter footage showed fires smoldering in the plant and in several surrounding buildings.

People were treated for injuries on the floodlit high school football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.

Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, told CNN that the hospital had been told to expect dozens of injured people.

By about 10 p.m., the hospital had received 66 injured, including 38 who were seriously hurt.

There were blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds, and a lot of lacerations and cuts, he said.

Other hospitals in the region were taking patients, including Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Robinson said.

In aerial TV footage, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen massed and stalled in traffic.

Entry into West was slow-going as roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in.

West's kolache bakeries are a popular stop on Interstate 35. Several injured people came to the Czech Stop bakery, said Barbara Schissler, president of the store.

"There have been many injuries," she said by phone.

"It's just crazy here. Like a war zone."

As she talked, emergency sirens could be heard continuously in the background.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers were using their squad cars to transport injured people, Gayle Scarbrough, a spokeswoman for the department's Waco office, told a Waco TV station.

She said six helicopters were also en route to help.

Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Perry's office, said personnel from several agencies were en route to West or already there, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state's emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state's top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.

American Red Cross crews from across Texas were also heading to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.

The fertilizer plant, on Jerry Mashek Drive, is about 3 miles north of the town of about 2,600.

Beverly Nunley, the Czech Stop's store manager, said the blast was so powerful that it rattled the walls, which knocked signs and framed pictures of celebrities to the floor.

"We've been told to shut our gas pumps off," Nunley said

West, in McLennan County, is 68 miles south of Fort Worth.

Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

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