Friday April 19, 2013

JASON FIELDS

Digital First Media

Searchers from across Texas combed through chunks of wood and brick Thursday that once had comprised homes in the small community of West. They were hoping to find people still alive, or at least count the dead.

The West Fertilizer Company’s plant exploded at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, despite the best efforts of firefighters who had arrived on the scene 20 minutes before, following reports of a blaze at the site.

As many as 170 people were injured in the blast, and at least five are dead in a town of 2,700, authorities say. The explosion was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jason Lucien, 15, was at church when the explosion happened. "My grandma called me and said my house exploded," Lucien said. "I was thinking, ‘what do I come home to?’ My house is nothing."

Lucien, a freshman at West High School, said he knew about five people who died in the explosion.

There have been no official accounts of precisely how large an area was affected by the blast, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry confirmed that as many as 75 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

An intermediate school was among those damaged, and a 50-unit apartment complex was reduced to what one local official called "a skeleton standing up." As a whole the area presented a horrific landscape of burned-out buildings and blackened rubble.


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Rescuers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don’t think that there’s anybody still alive," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said, though he called the search process "tedious and time-consuming."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott praised first responders during a press conference Thursday afternoon and said the citizens of West would receive Texas’ full support in the coming days and weeks.

"In the face of the most incredible danger, first responders ran in to try and save the lives of someone else. These first responders literally lost their lives helping others," Abbott said. "The support that we got in responding to this challenge is as big as Texas itself."

Officials say there’s no evidence at this point that the explosion was caused by anything other than an industrial accident, but nothing’s being ruled out.

Investigators are awaiting clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant’s huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.

The chemicals produced at the plant are similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

"It’s still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The plant had tanks of volatile anhydrous ammonia, including what initial reports said was a tanker-sized container like those hauled on freight trains, Swanton said at a news conference on Thursday. Federal regulators fined the company that operates the plant $10,000 last summer for safety violations. But the government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined that West Fertilizer Co. planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan. An inspector also found that the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled. In what’s left of the town, dogs with collars but no owners trotted nervously through deserted streets in cordoned-off neighborhoods around the decimated plant. The entire second floor of a nearby apartment complex was destroyed, leaving bricks and mattresses among the rubble. One rescue crew going from apartment to apartment gave special attention to a room where only a child’s red and blue bunk bed remained.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been at a school playground near the plant when the explosion hit. The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, she said, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from a nursing home, and the roof of the school rose into the sky.

"The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking."

Other developments:

* First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs.

* McLennan County has been declared a disaster, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

* Between 300 and 400 people are assisting the town, including members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Perry has sent 21 members of the National Guard to the scene, as well as other state aid workers.

* Five or six volunteer firefighters were at the plant fire when the explosion happened, West’s Mayor Tommy Muska said.

* The FAA issued a temporary flight restriction over the area.

* West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals, The Dallas Morning News is reporting.

How to help

By texting REDCROSS to 90999, you can make a $10 donation to American Red Cross National Disaster Relief. For tax purposes, find your receipt for the donations made by text at mgive.org/receipt Follow @CenTexRedCross @RedCrossDFW to learn more ways to help.

With contributions from Reuters, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.