WEST (CBSDFW.COM) – “Windows blown out, siding pulled off, bricks pulled off. It looked almost tornadic.”
That’s how Sgt. William Swanton from the Waco Police Department described the devastation in downtown West, following a massive explosion at a nearby fertilizer plant.
As of 4:30 a.m., Swanton said rescue crews were still going home to home, pulling injured people from the rubble. Swanton would confirm there are anywhere from five to fifteen people confirmed dead and cautioned that number could increase. Dr. George Smith,West’s EMS Director confirmed two EMS workers, six firefighters and one resident of a nearby apartment complex were among the dead.
More than 160 patients have been treated at three nearby hospitals. A spokesperson for Hillcrest Hospital confirmed about 100 patients have been treated, 29 of them will be admitted. Another 65 patients were taken to and treated at Providence Hospital. Scott White Hospital in Temple also accepted patients. Two victims have been transported to Parkland Hospital in Dallas for treatment.
Swanton also said authorities were still trying to locate as many as five firefighters and at least one police officer, who responded to the original fire at West Fertilizer Company, which was sparked at about 7:29 p.m., less than half an hour before the explosion.
Authorities are investigating whether the original fire was started accidentally or intentionally. ATF is on the scene and part of the investigation. “Until we know it’s an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene,” said Swanton.
Swanton said first responders had already started the process of evacuating homes and businesses once the first fire call went out, realizing there was a possibility of explosion because of the dangerous chemicals inside.
As many as 75 homes, a 50 unit apartment complex and a nursing home are among the residences near the explosion.
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.”
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. A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the state sent personnel from several agencies to help, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state’s emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state’s top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.
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. 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.
(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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