Update from Chief Billy Goldfeder, courtesy of
While not official (we consider “official” based upon what is posted by USFA/NFFF) – details from reliable and involved fire service leadership at the scene in West, Texas (20 miles north of Waco) are indicating that, at this time it appears that: 5 West Firefighters, 4 EMS Medics, 1 Off Duty Fire Captain from Dallas (who was in town at the time and was assisting) and 1 unconfirmed (unknown agency at this point) Firefighter have been killed in the Line of Duty. Active search and rescue operations are continuing.
WEST, Texas (AP) — A massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 left the blast site too hot for emergency teams to get close on Thursday, while rescuers searched the shattered farming community for survivors.
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The Wednesday evening blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake, leveling homes and businesses for blocks in every direction. Witnesses captured the searing blast and mushroom cloud on their cellphones.
The explosion in downtown West, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Dallas, could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris on frightened residents.
“They are still getting injured folks out, and they are evacuating people from their homes,” Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said Thursday morning. “They have not gotten to the point of no return where they don’t think that there’s anybody still alive.” He did not know how many people had been rescued.
There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a yawning crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, Swanton said.
Morning revealed a landscape wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings. The explosion sheared away the front of an apartment complex, leaving behind twisted beams, shattered windows and great heaps of broken wood. Cars were battered as if a tornado had spun through town.
Authorities had trouble entering the heart of the blast zone.
“It’s still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Thursday morning.
Among those believed to be dead were three to five volunteer firefighters. The many injuries included broken bones, cut and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care.
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.
It threw her son four feet (over a meter) in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from a nursing home, and the roof of the school lifted 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.”
Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It was also used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.
The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.
Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, Donahue said.
“The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen,” Donahue said. “That really happens almost instantaneously, and that’s what gives the tremendous force of the explosion.”
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 people needs “your prayers.”
About a half-hour before the blast, the town’s volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant, Swanton said. They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of the plant’s chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding area.
The blast happened 20 minutes later.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to the site. An ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions was also expected.
There were no immediate details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.
Federal regulators fined the company $10,000 last year 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 the 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.
It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.
Other notable fertilizer explosions have included the 2001 explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant that killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France, and the 1947 Texas City disaster, when a fire in a cargo ship holding more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, killing more than 500 people.
Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon, Nomaan Merchant and Terry Wallace in Dallas; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock and Seth Borenstein and Jack Gillum in Washington and video journalist Raquel Dillion in West contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.