Hundreds injured in deadly blast at Texas fertiliser plant

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 11:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am


A Texas fertiliser factory exploded in a huge fireball on Wednesday, destroying nearby homes and killing between five and 15 people, with one official likening the blast to a “nuclear bomb”.

Smoke and a strong burnt smell lingered in the air hours after the blast in the small town of West, near Waco, and officials expressed fears that toxic fumes could settle over the town.

There was also concern that a second fertiliser tank could explode, stoking anxiety in a nation already on edge after the nerve-jangling Boston marathon bombings, which left three dead.

The death toll “is estimated anywhere from five to 15 at this point,” while three area hospitals had treated more than 160 people with varying injuries, Waco police sergeant W Patrick Swanton said, adding that those figures could still rise.

Earlier KWTX television, citing the director of West emergency services, George Smith, had reported a toll of up to 60-70 dead.

Keith Hopkins, an administrator with Providence hospital in Waco, said that emergency personnel in West had also given him the figure of 60 to 70 fatalities.

An apartment complex and a nursing home were destroyed, local residents flooded into emergency shelters, and at least 100 patients were hospitalised following the blast, which US seismologists said had a magnitude of 2.1.

“It’s like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, told CNN of the explosion in the southern US state, which witnesses said sent a huge fireball into the air.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, DL Wilson, told reporters he could not “confirm or deny” the figure, saying: “We have confirmed fatalities. The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute.”

House-by-house searches were being conducted to find any additional victims, Wilson said.

The United States was already on edge in the wake of Monday’s deadly twin bombings on the Boston marathon, and a scare in Washington over mail apparently laced with the poison ricin sent to President Barack Obama and a US senator.

The huge blast also came just before the 20th anniversary on Friday of a deadly confrontation in Waco between federal authorities and heavily armed members of a religious group, the Branch Davidians.

The explosion at the West Fertiliser plant, sparked by an enormous blaze, occurred just before 8.00pm, Waco Assistant Fire Chief Don Yeager said by phone.

The cause was not immediately known but Yeager said it was an anhydrous ammonia explosion.

Flames continued to flare at the plant, sparking fears more explosions could widen the disaster that the mayor said had levelled up to 80 homes in the small Texas town of 2,500 people.

As a precaution, the Federal Aviation Administration declared a no-fly zone over the area around West, over fears another blast could bring down small aircraft.

But Swanton told reporters firefighters had brought the fire in that part of the plant “under control and I don’t think that’s any longer a threat.”

Power and gas has been cut to some areas of the town as a precaution, Swanton added.

But he said “air quality is a concern,” adding that authorities were watching the wind patterns and “where the cloud may drift,” and expect they will need to order further evacuations.

Mark Felton, executive director of the Waco-based Heart of Texas Red Cross, said that people were “flowing into the shelters” set up for evacuees and those whose homes were destroyed, without providing a specific figure.

“There are hundreds of emergency response vehicles lined up,” Felton said.

Witnesses said they were stunned by the sheer force of the blast.

“It knocked me down, it knocked me back. It was like the whole road just picked up,” resident Cheryl Marich, whose home was destroyed and whose husband was fighting the blaze, told CNN.

Jessica Turner, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey, said that experts “were able to see the ground motion that the explosion created,” putting the magnitude of the shockwave at 2.1.

The mayor told CNN that six or seven firefighters who had attempted to tackle the blaze were unaccounted for.

“It exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb,” Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Best Western Czech Inn in West, told The Dallas Morning News, referring to the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people.

“I live about a thousand feet from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There’s houses levelled that were right next to it.”

Another witness, Bill Bohannan, told the Waco Tribune-Herald: “It knocked us into the car... Every house within about four blocks is blown apart.”

In the 1993 Waco siege, following a 51-day stand-off, the group’s compound burned down after an assault was launched.

Dozens of people were killed in an incident that many far-right groups see as a symbol of egregious US government overreach.