Kingsport Times News Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Regional & National

Update: Rescuers search ruins of Texas plant, four block-area leveled

April 18th, 2013 12:30 am by JOHN L. MONE, and MICHAEL BRICK, Associated Press

Update: Rescuers search ruins of Texas plant, four block-area leveled

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, after an explosion Wednesday. Associated Press photo.

Update: 11:22 a.m.


WEST, Texas (AP) — Rescue workers searched the smoldering ruins of a fertilizer plant Thursday for survivors of a monstrous explosion that leveled homes and businesses in every direction across the Texas prairie. As many as 15 people were feared dead and more than 160 others injured.


Daybreak revealed a breathtaking band of destruction extending outward from the West Fertilizer Co. in this small farming community about 20 miles north of Waco. The thunderous blast was so powerful that it shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away.


Searchers "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. He did not know how many people had been rescued.


There was no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.


The explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. It leveled a four-block area around the plant, badly damaging or destroying up to 75 houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, a middle school and a nursing home.


All that remained of one home was the fireplace and chimney. Several buildings with smashed roofs and leveled walls still were smoking Thursday morning.


Firm information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles. Authorities themselves 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.


Among those believed to be dead were three to five volunteer firefighters and a law enforcement officer. The many injuries included broken bones, bruises, lacerations, respiratory distress, and some head injuries 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.


The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home, and the roof of the school lifted into the sky.


"Hit the ground, hit the ground," Zahirniako heard a neighbor yell.


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


William Burch and his wife, a retired Air Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first-responders arrived. They split up, searched separate wings and found residents in wheelchairs trapped in their rooms. The halls were dark, and the ceilings had collapsed. Water filled the hallways. Electrical wires hung eerily from the ceilings.


"They had Sheetrock that was on top of them. You had to remove that," Burch said. It was "completely chaotic."


Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.


West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 people needs "your prayers."


"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," Muska said. "We're going to search for everybody. We're going make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."


At the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Hospital in Waco, elderly people were wheeled in on stretchers. A man in a wheelchair with his T-shirt covered in blood winced as teams tended to his wounds.


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 area around the plant.


The blast happened 20 minutes later. Muska, who was among the firefighters, said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.


The main fire was under control late Wednesday, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant.


Firefighters used flashlights to search the still-burning skeleton of an apartment complex that was all but destroyed. A flood-lit football field was initially used as a staging area, then other triage centers sprung up around the blast site.


First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs. Many were dazed and panicked and did not know what happened.


Erick Perez was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed color. The blast threw him, his nephew and others to the ground and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris.


"The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before," Perez said. "This town is hurt really bad."


The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. An ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions was also expected, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, canines and forensic specialists.


American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.


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.


In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.


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Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon, Nomaan Merchant and Terry Wallace in Dallas, and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, contributed to this report.


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Update:


WEST, Texas (AP) — Rescue workers searched rubble early Thursday for survivors of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small Texas town that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others. The blast left the factory a smoldering ruin and leveled homes and businesses for blocks in every direction.


The explosion in downtown West, a small farming community about 20 miles north of Waco, shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.


"They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning. He added later, "At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue."


Swanton said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.


Among those believed to be dead: Three to five volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early Thursday morning.


The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was "totally decimated." The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to "a skeleton," a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.


Other witnesses compared the scene the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city's Murrah Federal Building.


Although authorities said it will be some time before they know how many lives were lost, they put the number of those injured at more than 160 early Thursday. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs "your prayers."


"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't gonna be here tomorrow," Muska said. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."


In the hours after the blast, many of the town's residents wandered the dark and windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the fertilizer plant when the explosion hit. She was walking the track, he was kicking a football.


The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home and the roof of the school lifted into the air.


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


The town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant at 7:29 p.m., Swanton said. Due to the plant's chemical stockpile, "they realized the seriousness of what they had," he said.


Muska was among the firefighters, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 20 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.


The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., authorities said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins. Swanton said early Thursday authorities were not concerned about lingering smoke from the fire.


Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene in the hours after the blast, as fires continued to smolder in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings. Aerial footage showed injured people being treated on the flood-lit football field that had been turned into a staging area.


Vanek said first-responders treated victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center. Swanton said the injured rescued so far had been taken to hospitals in Waco and a triage center at high school in nearby Abbott.


About 100 of the injured were treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, where five people were in intensive care. Another 65 were taken to Providence Health Center in Waco. Officials said the injuries included broken bones, bruises, lacerations, respiratory distress, and some head injuries and minor burns.


Erick Perez, 21, of West, was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed color. The blast threw him, his nephew and others to the ground and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris.


"The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before," Perez said. "This town is hurt really bad."


Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help.


The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.


There were no immediate details available from police 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.


In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.


___


Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon and Terry Wallace in Dallas, and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, contributed to this report.


__


WEST, Texas — A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday night injured dozens of people and sent flames shooting into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following a blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction.


The explosion at West Fertilizer in West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north.


Tommy Muska, West’s mayor, said at a news conference three hours after the explosion that he didn’t yet know how many people had been injured or killed. He said buildings in a five-block radius from the plant were severely damaged by the explosion.


Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs. “We did get there and got that taken care of,” Muska said.


Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, with even Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.


“We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident,” Perry said in a statement. “We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”


Aerial footage showed fires still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings, and people being treated for injuries on a flood-lit local football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.


Debby Marak told The Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke in the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home. She said she drove over to see what was happening, and that when she got there, two boys came running toward her screaming that the authorities ordered everyone out because the plant was going to explode.


She said she drove about a block when the blast happened.


“It was like being in a tornado,” Marak, 58, said by phone. “Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield.”


“It was like the whole earth shook.”


She drove 10 blocks and called her husband and asked him to come get her. When they got to their home about 2 miles south of town, her husband told her what he’d seen: a huge fireball that rose like “a mushroom cloud.”


The explosion caused the roof of what appeared to be a housing complex of some kind to collapse. In aerial footage from NBC’s Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, KXAS, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.


Authorities set up a staging area on a flood-lit high school football field, where the injured were being treated or taken to area hospitals via road or helicopter.


Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received 66 injured people for treatment, including 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.


Robinson did not immediately return messages from the AP.


American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.


A West Fire Department dispatcher said any casualties would be transported to hospitals in Waco, which is about 90 miles north of Austin.


The explosion knocked out power to many area customers and could be heard and felt for miles around.


Brad Smith, who lives 45 miles north of West in Waxahachie, told the station that he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.


Lydia Zimmerman, told KWTX that she, her husband and daughter were in their garden in Bynum, 13 miles from West, when they heard multiple blasts.


“It sounded like three bombs going off very close to us,” she said.


Rafael Abreu, a geophysicist with National Earthquake Information Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, said the explosion did not register on a seismograph because most of the blast’s energy dissipated in the atmosphere.


In 2001, an explosion at a chemical plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.

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