By John L. Mone and Nomaan Merchant
Corsicana Daily Sun
Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thursday for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris or bodies of the dead.
Initial reports put the number of fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.
A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and leveled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away from the town about 20 miles north of Waco.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.
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.
There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.
While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant’s huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.
“It’s still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The precise death toll was uncertain. Three to five volunteer firefighters were initially believed to be among the dead, which authorities said could number as many as 15. But by late Thursday afternoon, the state Department of Public Safety would not confirm how many had been killed.
Swanton said he would “never second-guess” firefighters’ decision to enter the plant because “we risk our lives every day.” The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care. Five more were listed in critical condition.
Gov. Rick Perry called the explosion “a truly nightmare scenario for the community” and said he had been in touch with President Barack Obama, who promised his administration’s assistance with operations on the ground.
Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It also was used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.
Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, Donahue said.
“The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen,” he said. “That really happens almost instantaneously, and that’s what gives the tremendous force of the explosion.”
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 surrounding area.
The blast happened 20 minutes later.
The company could not be reached for comment. A call to the home of plant owner Don R. Adair rang unanswered.
Associated Press writers Michael Brick, Will Weissert and Angela K. Brown and video journalist Raquel Maria Dillon in West; writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.