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Texas Rocked By Fertilizer Plant Explosion

WEST (CBSDFW.COM) - An explosion at a fertilizer plant in West killed between five and 15 people, at least, and left more than 160 others badly injured. Rescue workers are continuing to dig through the debris after the Wednesday evening blast just north of Waco, searching for survivors. The injury estimate is expected to grow once daylight breaks.

Emergency crews were called to the scene at about 7:30 p.m. to battle a small fire at the West Fertilizer Company, located in the 1400 block of Jerry Mashek Drive, just off of Interstate-35 between Waco and the DFW area. Firefighters were trying to control that blaze when an explosion happened. Emergency officials are among those confirmed dead, and some first responders are among the missing, but no names have been released.

The blast damaged as many as 75 nearby homes and gutted units in an apartment complex, according to State Trooper D.L. Wilson. "We've got a lot of houses on one street, especially there, that look like a war zone," added EMS director Dr. George Smith. "They've been collapsed, so there may be people inside those houses, either critically injured or deceased."

West Explosion Map
(credit: CBS News)

Buildings within a five-block radius from the explosion were severely damaged. Additional crews from across the state have been called to help with the injuries and the destruction. And the plant was still smoldering on Thursday morning, with active ingredients inside. The situation was deemed too volatile for firefighters to battle any flames. Rainy weather on Thursday helped officials get the situation under control.

Julie Zahirniako was with her son at a playground when the explosion hit. The blast threw the boy four feet into the air and broke his ribs. "The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking." The force of the blast resulted in a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. That measurement was based on waves absorbed through the ground. The actual force of impact was much greater above ground.

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't going to be here tomorrow," said Mayor Tommy Muska.

"Part of that community is gone," said Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton with the Waco Police Department.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene," said Gov. Rick Perry in a statement, before declaring McLennan County a disaster area and mobilizing state resources to help out local authorities in Central Texas.

President Barack Obama later echoed Perry's words, adding, "West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people." Click here to read the full statement from President Obama.

The town of West has a population of about 2,800 people. Residents were evacuated immediately after the explosion. The West Rest Haven Nursing Home was among the locations evacuated, as officials moved 133 patients to safety, some in wheelchairs. Authorities have not said if there were any injuries among those patients.

More than 100 victims were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, and most of them have already been released. Other victims were transported to Providence Health Center, Scott White Hospital in Temple, Parkland Hospital in Dallas and JPS Hospital in Fort Worth. Those worried about the safety of loved ones can call 254-202-1100 to check on their status. Click here for additional emergency resources, including contact information for hospitals and relief providers.

The entire state has pulled together to offer assistance to West residents who have been impacted by the deadly blast. Volunteers from the American Red Cross have been mobilized and are bringing supplies to those in need -- both citizens and emergency crews on the scene. Businesses, homes and churches near West have opened their doors to displaced residents. Reverend James Stevens with the First Baptist Church of Gholson said, "People are bringing food and water and blankets and necessities for these victims, and we're so thankful for everybody's generosity in time of crisis."

"I know we hear a lot about police, a lot about first responders and about firemen rushing into the scene," said Swanton. "Folks, I am here to tell you that there are some true heroes out there today that aren't cops, aren't paid firemen. They are civilians, and they're going into a line of fire with us as well. So, certainly we appreciate those folks that are showing up in a supportive role. They are saving lives with us."

However, despite reports of kind Texans helping out victims, there are some individuals walking the opposite path. "There has been a small amount of looting," Swanton said at a Thursday morning news conference. Police are working to secure the blast site and protect the community from these crimes.

Meanwhile, the cause of the explosion is under investigation. West Fertilizer Company was cited in 2006 for failing to qualify for a permit. The plant had also been under investigation due to the strong smell of ammonia nearby. But Swanton explained, "Until we know it's an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene."

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