Texas plant explosion death toll jumps

(CNN) — Some 35 people — including 10 first responders — died in a massive explosion Wednesday night at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Mayor Tommy Muska said, according to USA Today.

The number included five volunteer fire fighters, four emergency responders and an off-duty fire fighter from Dallas who lived in West, the mayor told the newspaper.

Video of Texas plant explosion surfaces as several feared deadDallas Mayor Mike Rawlings identified the off-duty fire fighter as Kenny Harris, a captain in his city’s fire department. Harris “rushed to the scene as a helper,” Rawlings said on Twitter.

Officials at news conferences in West were unwilling to give any numbers on victims. They have only confirmed there have been casualties.

Earlier, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton estimated there were five to 15 people who died.

George Smith, West’s director of emergency services, has said the death toll could spike to 60 or 70.

More than 160 people were injured.

Residents packed the Church of the Assumption in West on Thursday night to remember those who died and to pray for the survivors.

Glenn Robinson, the head of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco where many victims were taken, said 29 patients were still hospitalized, including five that were in the intensive care unit.

The area around the site of the massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that flattened much of the small Texas town remains “very volatile” due to the presence of ammonium nitrate, McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said Thursday.

Authorities searched through mounds of rubble in hopes of finding survivors of the blast that left shattered homes and wreckage in a wide swath of the town, which has only 2,800 people.

“It’s overwhelming to us,” said Smith. As he spoke to CNN affiliate KCEN, blood was spattered on his face from injuries he suffered.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” said Mayor Tommy Muska.

Muska told CNN on Thursday afternoon that emergency officials were still combing through a nearby nursing home, apartment complex and the plant looking for survivors.

“We still are holding out some hope, but right now we’re just trying to get a hand around it and see,” he said.

At the same time he said he realized the casualty count might rise as the number of missing falls.

“We’ve got the best of the best looking, and that’s what we want to do,” he said. “I want to count up all my citizens and all my firefighters.”

On Wednesday evening, a fire at the plant suddenly exploded with a huge, deafening bang, throwing people to the ground blocks away.

About half the town was evacuated, including the nursing home with 133 residents.

Three schools also are near the plant. Classes weren’t in session when the explosion happened Wednesday night.

‘Roof came in on me’

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air, followed by a plume of smoke bigger than the plant itself. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It was “massive — just like Iraq, just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department, referring to a bombing that took place 18 years ago Friday.

The blast stripped the apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows. “It was just a skeleton standing up,” Wilson said.

“The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came,” Smith said.

Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area sustained damage, officials said.

Pastor Lester Adams said he met with a family that was shattered by the explosion. The mother had part of her ankle missing and her feet were crushed, he said. Her daughter had cuts and her son had to get six “staples” in the back of his head.

“They went to check and see what was going on. They went out in front yard and (the) blast came from the back,” he told CNN affiliate WOAI. “If they’d stayed in the house they would have probably been killed because their house collapsed.”

Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and felt his house shake.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Cause unknown

As of Thursday afternoon, authorities had not determined what led to the deadly explosion. Cawthon said his sheriff’s office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the state fire marshal’s office are working “to determine the exact cause of the situation.”

Swanton said earlier there were no indications of criminal activity but that wasn’t being ruled out yet.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters “it’s way premature” to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.

A U.S. intelligence official told CNN there is no indication so far that the blast is related to terrorism.

While state authorities are leading the investigation, the federal government is assisting.

Chemical concerns

With help from heavy rains early Thursday, firefighters managed to quell most of the flames in the area, authorities said.

The rain and heavy winds also helped dissipate chemicals that may have been released.

Swanton emphasized that there was no cause for alarm about the air. There was no “chemical escape” that is “out of control,” he said.