'About 60' people still unaccounted for in West, Sen. Cornyn says

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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BREAKING NEWS UPDATE:

WEST -- About 60 people are still unaccounted for after a fertilizer plant explosion in the small Central Texas town of West, Sen. John Cornyn said Friday.

Twelve people have been confirmed dead, and 25 houses in the blast area remain to be searched, DPS officials said earlier Friday.

Cornyn said authorities are checking hospitals and "making sure they know where people are," he said.

McLennan County Commissioner Ben Perry later told the Waco Tribune-Herald that the list of those unaccounted for has not been compared with those hospitalized and that the number is expected to drop "dramatically."

Two hundred people were injured in the powerful blast just before 8 p.m. Wednesday. The recovered bodies were sent to a Dallas forensics lab for identification.

Officials said 150 buildings have been cleared and 50 houses have been destroyed. Sgt. Jason Reyes of the Texas Department of Public Safety also said three fire rescue trucks and one EMS vehicle were destroyed as a result of the explosion.

The dead were found "in the area" of the demolished plant, Reyes said.

Searchers were continuing to look for victims as the sun rose Friday over the town of 2,800 just north of Waco.

"I think it is only appropriate we recognize [the search and rescue teams] for their professionalism and heroism as they try to bring closure to these families," Reyes said.

Original report starts here

The scope of the explosion that devastated a large slice of this quiet Central Texas town became clearer Thursday as search teams scoured the blast area for survivors and those killed when a tank reportedly containing liquid ammonia exploded at a fertilizer business.

Officials at one point Thursday put the death toll at "five to 15" but declined to give an estimate throughout the day.

But several relatives and organizations confirmed that up to eight emergency responders, five of them West volunteer firefighters, were among the dead or missing.

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

Two-hundred people in the town of about 2,800 were injured in the Wednesday night explosion, which registered 2.1 on the earthquake scale and damaged structures more than a mile away. By comparison, the ammonium 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, with 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.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said 50 to 60 homes were damaged within five blocks of the blast.

Swanton said volunteer firefighters and a constable were fighting the 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 house to house looking for survivors, he said.

Among the 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 the blast rocked her car, Sebesta said.

"It basically busted the air bags 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, said they were among the missing.

Dallas Fire-Rescue said 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.

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.

"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 his son and the friend are 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.

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 tightknit community has been shaken, and good, hardworking 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 about who is among the dead.

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

Safety violations

Last summer, federal regulators fined West Fertilizer $10,000 for safety violations involving anhydrous ammonia. But the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration 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.

The West Fertilizer plant, which opened in 1962, contained two storage tanks for a combined 24,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia and also stored ammonium nitrate, records say. It was mainly a storage and sales facility, with the chemicals used to make fertilizer for area farmers.

Ammonium nitrate, a high-nitrogen fertilizer, can be highly combustible, said Brian Zoltowski, assistant professor of chemistry at Southern Methodist University. The chemical is used to make explosives like those used in the Oklahoma City bombing 18 years ago.

"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," Zoltowski said. "You don't want to jump to conclusions."

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were in West assisting with the investigation, Swanton said. The McLennan County Sheriff's Department 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 is 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 with 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 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 a room at the nursing home that was damaged, he said. His mother-in-law escaped unharmed, but the sister was being treated in intensive care.

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

Nothing left

Residents evacuated from their homes awaited information from authorities on what 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 they 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, relatives helped load 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 M. Tinsley, Bill Miller and Yamil Berard in Fort Worth contributed to this report.

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