Hunt for survivors after 15 killed in blast at Texas fertiliser plant

More than 160 people treated for injuries as hunt for survivors continues amid fears that toxic fumes could settle over small Texas town

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 5:00am

The search continued yesterday for survivors of a huge explosion that tore through a fertiliser plant in a small central Texas town on Wednesday night.

At least 15 people died and more than 160 were injured in the blast, which destroyed buildings and created a potential threat of toxic fumes settling over the area.

Smoke and an acrid smell of burning lingered in the air hours after the blast in the small town of West.

The tragic incident began with a smaller fire at the plant, the West Fertiliser Co, just off a highway about 32 kilometres north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters.

"The fire spread and hit some tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertiliser," local congressman Bill Flores said. "There was an explosion which caused wide damage."

The group of volunteer firefighters and one police officer are believed to be among the dead.

Videos posted online showed a large fire, visible from hundreds of metres away, followed by a fireball that blasted high into the sky and set fires burning into the night.

The explosion, which happened at around 8pm, levelled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, described as being "totally decimated."

The buildings destroyed included up to 75 houses and an apartment complex with about 50 units that one police officer said was reduced to "a skeleton".

The blast also shattered a school and a nursing home, from which emergency teams evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.

Waco police sergeant William Swanton warned that the death toll could rise further.

"There are homes levelled, businesses levelled, there is massive devastation in the downtown West area," Swanton said. The authorities were searching house by house, he said.

While the site was being treated as a crime scene, there were no indications that the fire was not accidental, Swanton said, adding that the blaze was now under control.

D.L. Wilson, a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety, compared the destruction to Iraq war scenes and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, an act of terrorism using explosives made from fertiliser.

"I can tell you I was there, I walked through the blast area, I searched some houses earlier tonight. It was massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City," he said.

A special emergency area had been set up, and television footage showed dozens of emergency vehicles attending to huddled casualties under blankets and on stretchers.

West, with a population of about 2,800, is home to a thriving Czech community dating back to the late 1800s, as immigrants settled the American frontier.

Wednesday's blast came two days before the 20th anniversary of the US government's raid on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco that killed 76, including cult leader David Koresh.

In revenge for that incident, exactly two years later Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

The New York Times, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse