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Dozens Feared Dead, Hundreds Injured In Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Brandon @Bird1304
Photo from volunteer firefighter in West. Photo Credit: Brandon@Bird1304

WACO (CBSDFW.COM) - Rescue workers continued to go from home to home early Thursday morning searching for survivors of a massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, north of Waco, that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160.  Officials say those are preliminary estimates and are likely to increase once daylight breaks.  Two EMS workers, six firefighters and a resident of a nearby apartment complex are among those confirmed dead, according to West's EMS Director, Dr. George Smith.  No names are being released at this time.

>> Click For Comprehensive Coverage of the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion <<

Residents of the town, with a population of about 2,800, were asked to evacuate immediately after the Wednesday night explosion at the West Fertilizer Company. The plant is located at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, just off Interstate-35.  School buses and ambulances were sent to evacuate residents from the area.

Firefighters had been called to the plant to battle a small fire at the plant around 7:29 p.m. Crews were working to bring the blaze under control when the explosion happened around 7:53 p.m.  Firefighters and a police officer who responded to the initial fire are among the missing.

Emergency crews from central and north Texas have been called in to help respond to the injuries and destruction from the explosion. Into the early morning hours Thursday the plant was still smoldering and active ingredients were still inside. The situation is still too volatile to have firefighters try and battle any flames.

Trooper D.L. Wilson of the Texas Department of Public Safety estimates that as many as 75 homes were severely damaged and an apartment complex with 50 units was gutted by the blast. West EMS Director Dr. George Smith said, ""We've got a lot of houses on one street especially there that look like a war zone. They've been collapsed, so there may be people inside those houses, either critically injured or deceased.

Tommy Muska, West's mayor, said at a news conference three hours after the explosion that buildings in a five-block radius from the plant were severely damaged by the explosion. Among them was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, a location where first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs. "We did get there and got that taken care of," Muska said.

Trooper Wilson said said 133 patients from the nearby nursing home were evacuated. He could not comment on the extent of any patient injuries, but says all patients have been evacuated from the building.

Dr. Smith said he saw the initial fire and became concerned. "When I saw the fire I went to the nursing home, because I knew there were hazardous chemicals [in the plant], and I helped the nursing home personnel move them [residents] away from the area close to the explosion." Then the doctor said there was chaos. "It exploded while I was in the nursing home. I had debris and glass windows all over me… had to get out of there myself," he said. "Luckily we had got most of the residents on the other side. Hopefully I think that saved some lives."

More than 100 patients have been taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.  Most of them were treated and released, with a few dozen with injuries serious enough to be admitted.  Two Hillcrest patients are listed in critical condition, three are in serious.  Providence Health Center treated more than 60 patients.  Scott White Hospital in Temple, Parkland Hospital in Dallas and JPS Hospital in Fort Worth, also accepted explosion patients. Hillcrest set up a hotline number (254) 202-1100 for family and friends to check on loved ones.

Click here for a full list of emergency resources

Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, with even Governor Rick Perry saying state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.

"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement. "We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."

Aerial footage showed fires still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings, and people being treated for injuries on a flood-lit local football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.  Triage was eventually moved to a nearby softball field because of a strong odor in the area.

Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs "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."

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."

A woman passing through West on Interstate-35 at the tie of the explosion told CBS 11 News she saw a fireball 100-feet wide shoot into the air.  USGS says the blast was the equivalent of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.

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Waco Calls

American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. 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. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.

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.

Swanton said he had no details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.

Click here to see a photo gallery of West Texas fertilizer plant explosion

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