Officials announced Thursday morning that the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion Wednesday night in the town of West, Texas, is responsible for an estimated 5-15 deaths and more than 160 injuries, Associated Press reported Thursday.
According to Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton, the death toll estimate is still in an early stage, and with 50-60 people still missing, many more are feared dead. Swanton confirmed that volunteer firefighters and a law enforcement officer who initially responded to the emergency call have yet to be located.
“They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes.… At some point, this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point we are still in search and rescue,” said Swanton.
West EMS Director Dr. George Smith had announced Wednesday that 60-70 people may have died in the blast, including six firefighters, seven residents of a nearby nursing home and two paramedics, KWTX.com reported.
The explosion occurred 20 miles north of Waco and reportedly shook the ground with a 2.1-magnitude force, according to a U.S. Geological Study, spreading flames and debris and taking out an estimated 50-75 homes, an entire 50-unit apartment complex, a middle school and nursing home, AP reported.
City council member Al Venek is now calling the area decimated, and other witnessses compared the four-block site to a war zone.
Volunteer firefighter and West Mayor Tommy Muska said the blast blew out the doors and windows of his own nearby home and asked for “prayers” for the town’s 2,800 evacuated residents.
“We’ve got a lot of people who are hurt, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, who aren’t going to be here tomorrow. We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for,” said Muska. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
Chief Executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, Glenn Robinson, said more than 40 people are classified in serious condition, Dallas News reported Wednesday. Injuries treated at local hospitals included lacerations, broken bones, head injuries, burns and respiratory distress.
Victims are recovering at four nearby hospitals: Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Providence Healthcare Network in Waco, Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, and Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple.
West Fertilizer Co., owned by Adair Grain Inc., told the Environmental Protection Agency that the facility held an estimated 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia to produce ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer and pesticide. AP reported that the number of employees at the plant is unknown. The company was previously reported by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality in June 2006 of a reported “bad smell” on site.
Authorities said foul play is not suspected at this time.
The deadly explosion comes two days before the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 dead and hundreds injured.