Searches continue, death toll begins to mount after West explosion

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WEST -- The scope of the explosion that devastated a large slice of this quiet central Texas town became clearer Thursday as search teams scoured damaged and collapsed buildings for survivors and those who perished when a tank reportedly containing liquid ammonia exploded at a local fertilizer business.

Officials at one point put the death toll at "five to 15," then later declined to give an estimate.

Several family members and organizations confirmed that as many as eight emergency responders, five of them West volunteer firefighters, were among the dead or missing.

The blast transformed life in the tiny, traditionally Czech community, known for its annual Westfest event featuring locally made sausages and stuffed kolache rolls.

More than 160 people in the town of about 2,800 were injured in the Wednesday night explosion, whose strength registered 2.1 on the earthquake scale, damaging structures more than a mile away. By comparison, the ammonia nitrate bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 produced a blast with a 3.0 magnitude.

Daylight brought the destruction into relief, revealing areas that looked as if they had been pounded by artillery, leaving acres of collapsed roofs and buildings, twisted trees and railroad tracks, and demolished vehicles.

Heavily damaged was a 15-unit apartment complex less than 1,000 feet from the family-run West Fertilizer Co., where the tank caught fire, then exploded as firefighters battled the blaze.

"A significant area around the fertilizer plant ... has been destroyed. Homes have been destroyed. There are homes flattened. Part of that community is gone," said Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, a Waco police spokesman who is helping the town with official communications.

Mayor Tommy Muska said 50 to 60 homes were damaged within a five-block radius of the blast.

Swanton said volunteer firefighter and a constable were at the scene fighting a fire when the plant exploded.

"There are some true heroes out there today," Swanton said. "And they are civilians."

Several of the volunteer firefighters who responded to the initial fire remained unaccounted for Thursday, Swanton said. Texas Task Forces 1 and 2, the Burleson Fire Department heavy rescue unit and Fort Hood search and rescue workers were going from house to house looking for survivors, he said.

Muska told USA Today that 10 first-responders were among 35 people presumed dead in the explosion. The dead included residents from homes near the plant, the newspapaper reported,

Among those missing was Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary for West and a member of the town's 30-member volunteer fire department.

"He was there doing his job, and he put his life in harm's way to protect the people that he needed to protect," said his brother-in-law, David Sebesta.

Pustejovsky's wife, Kelly, was driving past the town's football field not far from the fertilizer company when her car was rocked by the blast, Sebesta said.

"It basically busted the airbags in her car," he said. "She had his son and her oldest with her. It was a pretty catastrophic event."

The family of 47-year-old firefighter Morris Bridges was told Thursday that he was also missing and probably didn't make it, said his son, Brent Bridges, 18. Relatives of two brothers also serving in the volunteer department, Robert and Doug Snokhous, ages 47 and 50, respectively, said they were still among the missing.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue department said that one of its off-duty fire captains, Kenny Harris, 52, a resident of West, was killed in the explosion. A married father of three grown sons, Harris wasn't on duty when he decided to lend a hand to volunteer firefighters battling the fire.

Perry Calvin, a resident of Emmett, 35 miles northeast of West, was attending an emergency medical technician class in the town with a friend when they responded to the fire alarm at the fertilizer distribution center.

"They just went to help fight the fire," said Calvin's father, Phil, who is chief of the Navarro Mills Fire Department. Phil Calvin said he learned Thursday afternoon that both his son and his friend were among the dead.

People were first treated for injuries on West's floodlit high school football field until a second tank at the fertilizer company was recognized as a hazard. After that, people were told to evacuate the area immediately.

Waco's Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center said it had treated more than 100 people hurt in the blast. Burn victims and others were taken to hospitals as far away as Dallas and Fort Worth, more than 70 miles to the north. Three elderly patients were admitted to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.

"Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas, in the aftermath of last night's deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant," President Barack Obama said. "A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives."

Some structures, including the apartment building, had to be reinforced before search crews could safely enter, Swanton said.

Gary Adair, whose father owns the decades-old fertilizer business, told the Star-Telegram that it had been closed for about three hours when the explosion occurred. The family had no idea what led to the disaster, he said.

Adair said his 83-year-old father, Donald Adair, was too distraught to talk.

"Everybody in town basically knows everybody," the son said, his words dissolving into sobs. "It's really rough. It's a tragedy."

Though he was awaiting confirmation like the rest of the town, Adair said he had a pretty good idea of who was among the dead.

"There are people you know just like a brother," he said.

Last summer, federal regulators fined West Fertilizer $10,000 for safety violations involving anhydrous ammonia, the gas believed involved in the explosion. But the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration later accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions.

Regulators found that the company planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan, records show. An inspector also discovered that the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled. Last year, the nearby school had to be evacuated when the company burned debris.

"Without knowing the cause, it's really difficult to come to a rational conclusion whether there was any mishandling of materials, or whether this was just a freak accident," said Brian Zoltowski, assistant professor of chemistry at Southern Methodist University. "You don't want to jump to conclusions."

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were in West assisting with the investigation, Swanton said. The McLennan County Sheriff's Office will investigate deaths related to the explosion.

"I have no indication that this was anything other than (an) industrial fire," said Swanton, who added that it was nonetheless being treated as a crime scene until the cause is confirmed. "We always start out looking at the worst scenario."

The initial fire was reported at 7:29 p.m. Wednesday. As volunteers of the West Fire Department fought the blaze, a tank with anhydrous ammonia exploded. Swanton said the first call about the blast was logged at 7:53 p.m.

Ricky Adams was driving his Ford F-150 pickup to a Knights of the Columbus meeting and was about a block from the business when the ammonia tanks exploded.

"It sucked the ceiling down over my head, threw me into the dashboard and shattered the back window," Adams said. "I never felt anything like it in my life."

His mother-in-law and her sister share at room at the nursing home that was damaged in the blast, he said. His mother-in-law escaped unharmed but the sister was being treated for an injuring in a hospital's intensive care unit.

"We're not sure how she is doing right now," he said.

Residents who were evacuated from their homes waited for information from authorities on what, if anything, was left standing.

Misty Kaska and her husband, Brian, and 1-year-old daughter live in a home about 100 yards from the plant. They were in Waco when they got word that the plant was burning and asked her brother to go check on the house.

The explosion occurred while he was on the way, Misty Kaska said. "He did see the house crumble and catch on fire," she said. "It was just rolling black smoke."

On Thursday morning, family members helped load up Kaska's pickup with paper towels, food and other supplies.

"All of our belongings, all of the pictures of our daughter from this past year -- gone. My wedding ring is gone," she said. "We lost it all."

Staff writers Dustin Dangli, Gordon Dickson and Alex Branch in West, Dave Montgomery and Patrick M. Walker in Waco, and Domingo Ramirez Jr., Diane Smith, Terry Evans, Anna Tinsley, Bill Miller and Yamil Berard in Fort Worth contributed to this report.

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