UPDATE (3 p.m.): Search and rescue teams continued to comb through smoking piles of debris Thursday afternoon, looking for survivors of Wednesday’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Although officials continue to say between five and 15 people died in the blast, that number seems likely to rise given the level of destruction.
Law enforcement officials have cordoned off a five-block radius around the plant. Homes, churches and school buildings in the area suffered extensive damage.
Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described search efforts as "tedious and time-consuming," noting crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before looking for people who might be trapped.
Searchers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.
The smoldering remains of the plant are too hot for crews to get close to the facility. Between three and five volunteer firefighters who first responded to the blaze that preceded the explosion are still missing.
Reporters questioned Swanton about whether the blast could have been triggered deliberately, but he said he had no indication it was anything more than an accident. A similar accident triggered one of the worst disasters in Texas history when a ship carrying ammonium nitrate exploded as it sat at the Texas City port in 1947. The explosion leveled much of the coastal town and killed 581 people. It remains one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history.
EARLIER STORY: Rain fell and thunder rolled as first responders and residents went door to demolished door Thursday morning, searching through what’s left of the small Texas town of West for survivors of a fertilizer plant explosion.
The blast leveled homes and businesses for blocks in every direction, killing as many as 15, police say, and injuring more than 160 others—both early estimates.
"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."
The explosion, which could be heard dozens of miles away, sent flames shooting into the sky Wednesday evening and rocked the downtown area of the small farming community, known for its kolatches and Czechoslovakian flare, with the strength of a small earthquake.
Among those thought to be dead: Three to five volunteer firefighters and a police officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before the blast.
The explosion leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, described as “totally decimated.” The area included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units—now reduced to “a skeleton” according to one state police officer—a middle school, and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders safely evacuated 133 patients.
Resident Julie Zahirniako was walking at the school’s track, watching her son Anthony as he played at a nearby playground when the nearby plant exploded.
The blast threw Anthony 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.
“The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking."
Some witnesses likened the scene to 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.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 people needed "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."