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Texas Plant Explosion

  • Huge explosion at fertilizer plant levels homes, nursing home
  • Hotline set up 254-202-1100
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fertlizer(CNN) — The 2013 fertilizer plant blast that killed 15 people and wounded another 226 in West, Texas, “should never have occurred,” the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Tuesday.

The board’s investigation, released a few days after the one-year anniversary of the explosion, indicates that the incident was “preventable,” Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement distributed to reporters that put blame on the company and government regulators.

“It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it,” Moure-Eraso said.

WEST, Texas (CNN) — One by one, the beleaguered townspeople of West, Texas, filed into local churches Sunday to begin the healing process, following last week’s deadly blast at the nearby West Fertilizer Co. plant.

texas vigilAs parishioners streamed out of St. Mary’s Catholic Church after Sunday’s service, Father Boniface Onjefu hugged and consoled his congregants, and gave reassuring smiles and high fives to the church’s youngest members.

“West is a strong city. We shall definitely overcome this tragedy,” Onjefu told those assembled at his church, about a mile from the explosion site. Several members of St. Mary’s were killed or injured battling the blaze, Onjefu told CNN.

The church’s parking lot has become a staging area, of sorts, for police and first responders who have flooded the north central Texas community since Wednesday’s explosion that killed 14 people.

Search and rescue efforts have evolved into search and recovery efforts, because officials don’t expect to find any more victims in the wreckage — alive or dead.

The explosion at West Fertilizer’s plant ruined much of the north side of town, and left hundreds of people injured, homeless and in need of help.

On television nationally, the scope of the tragedy was overshadowed by the dramatic events in New England, as investigators there pursued leads in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, then pursued their suspects.

But many Texans kept their focus on the great need close to home. Long lines of cars streamed by the community center, dropping off food, water and other rations throughout the weekend. Numerous church groups and restaurants handed out hot meals.

“These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco Police Department Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

The nine first responders from West who died battling the blaze represented nearly one-third of the town’s volunteer firefighting and EMT force. The fire destroyed two fire trucks and an ambulance. Firefighters and trucks from neighboring communities now fill the void at the West firehouse.

At Sunday’s emotional church service in this farming town of fewer than 3,000 residents, the priest told congregants his personal recollection of Wednesday’s horror. He had just returned to the rectory when he heard the blast.

“I thought it was an earthquake,” Onjefu said. The lights flickered on and off as his small two-story brick residence shook from the explosion, he added.

Texas ExplosionOnjefu said that when he headed outside, he immediately noticed a large, dark plume of smoke rising in the sky on the north side of town. He got into his car and drove toward the smoke.

The priest was one of the first to arrive in the destroyed part of town. He immediately began helping remove victims from a severely damaged nursing home. The town’s high school and middle school, also close to the fertilizer plant, sustained heavy damage as well.

Onjefu said that since the blast, he has witnessed “fear in the eyes” of people walking the streets of West.

Many churchgoers trying to fathom the destruction have asked Onjefu for answers about why the plant exploded.

“I guess it could have been worse,” an elderly church member told him as he left the Sunday service.

Onjefu smiled and agreed, reminding the man of his sermon, which noted that rains and winds in the area had helped tame the blaze, and kept the poisonous cloud of fumes away from the center of town.

Evacuated townspeople began returning home late Saturday to begin what promises to be a massive cleanup effort. Authorities allowed a second wave to revisit their homes Sunday.

The process “is going well and orderly,” with “very few hiccups,” said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro tem. Adult residents are being allowed in until 7 p.m., under the supervision of Texas state police, he said.

A strict curfew and heavy state police presence control the areas cordoned off near the site — almost the entire north side of town.

The cause of the fire and explosion has not been determined yet, but investigators have isolated the center of the blast, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said Sunday. The explosion left a large crater in the middle of the plant, Kistner said.

Funeral arrangements are pending for those killed. But Vanek said Sunday that Baylor University, 20 miles away in Waco, will host a memorial service for first responders at 2 p.m. Thursday. So far, 10 of the 14 casualties have been identified as first responders, including a Dallas firefighter.

(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.

WEST, Texas (CNN) — Teams of first responders descended on the devastated town of West, Texas, early Thursday where a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant left scores of casualties and turned homes to rubble.

TexasExplosionThe number of dead remained unclear, with police saying it could be between five and 15. More than 160 people were injured and “three to four” firefighters were missing or unaccounted for, officials said.

Firefighters were battling the blaze that precipitated the explosion Wednesday night. And a storm system heading into the area brought helpful rain — but also heavy winds that might make it much tougher to contain the fire.

It’s unknown whether residents were trapped under remnants of destroyed buildings, authorities said early Thursday. Teams were combing through flattened areas, but nails and other debris created safety risks, said Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton. Also, the Department of Homeland Security said federal and state authorities were taking steps to secure the area by shutting down local rail freight service and nearby utilities and restricting flights over the area.

Cause unknown

“Nothing at this point indicates we have had criminal activity, but we are not ruling that out,” said Swanton. A U.S. intelligence official told CNN there is no indication so far that the blast is related to terrorism.

Most of the injured were hurt by the blast — not by inhaling fumes, officials said. Many people had lacerations and puncture wounds.

Anhydrous ammonia, a gas used in making fertilizer, can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

There is no “chemical escape” that is “out of control,” Swanton said.

There have been reports of “a small amount of looting,” he said.

While Swanton said the death toll could be between five and 15, Dr. George Smith, the city’s emergency management system director, said it could spike to 60 or 70.

“We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead,” Smith said.

“There are a lot of people that will not be here tomorrow,” Mayor Tommy Muska warned late Wednesday.

About half the community was evacuated, Muska said, including a nursing home with 133 residents. A middle school is also located near the plant.

Depending how the winds shift, the other half of the town may have to be evacuated.

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has a team of 20 agents and forensic specialists assisting, a law enforcement source told CNN.

The Texas National Guard has sent 21 troops from a civil support team to monitor air quality near the blast, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The White House said it is monitoring the situation through FEMA, which is in touch with state and local authorities. Federal authorities stand ready to help, a FEMA official said.

“A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives,” President Obama said in a statement.

Those affected “will have the support of the American people,” he said.

The explosion shook homes as far as 50 miles away. It measured as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey.

“It’s overwhelming to us,” Smith told CNN affiliate KCEN, with blood spattered all over his face from injuries he suffered. The town has only three ambulances, he said.

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

Blast struck first responders

The incident began with a fire. Some firefighters came to the scene to quell the blaze, and were there minutes later when the explosion happened at the West Fertilizer Co. at about 7:50 p.m. (8:50 p.m. ET).

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” he said of the blast. “Big old mushroom cloud.”

“(It’s) massive — just like Iraq. Just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department.

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

The blast sent a massive fireball into the sky. Flames leaped over the roof of a structure and a large plume of smoke rose high into the air.

“The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came,” said George Smith, the city EMS director.

“It, like, picked you up,” a woman told CNN affiliate WFAA. “It just took your breath away. And then it dropped you and it exploded everything around you… It was like a suction and then it just blew it all out. You could feel everything. You could feel it on your skin, your hair was being blown. It was crazy.”

She managed to cover one of her children, she said, and “grabbed my little one and dove through a door. It was chaos. All my windows blew out, my doors off the hinges. All I had were my keys in my hand and I just threw the dog, everybody in the car and we took off.”

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 though. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?'”

Five hours after the blast, carloads of the wounded continued to stream into hospitals.

While some of the injuries are minor, others were “quite serious,” said Glenn Robinson, chief of Hillcrest Hospital in Waco.

Hillcrest reported five patients in intensive care — two in critical condition, three in serious condition. At least 28 patients will be admitted, said hospital chief Glenn Robinson.

Shelter needed

The storm system working its way through the area — including lightning and hail — could cause problems not only for firefighters, but also for those left homeless.

Overnight lows will be just above freezing, said CNN Meteorologist Jennifer Delgado.

And the danger may not be over.

Even though officials have turned off all the gas at the plant, they worry another tank at the facility might explode.

“What we are hearing is that there is one fertilizer tank that is still intact at the plant, and there are evacuations in place to make sure everyone gets away from the area safely in case of another explosion,” said Ben Stratmann, a spokesman for Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town’s chamber of commerce touts it as “the Czech point of central Texas.”

Czech immigrants arrived in the town in the 1880s, and the community still maintains strong ties to their central European roots, with businesses named “Little Czech Bakery” and “The Czech Inn.”

The scene

Early Thursday morning, state troopers in gas masks manned roadblocks, waving away cars coming off the highway.

The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.

Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week, and urged everyone to stay away from school property.

So many firefighters and medics descended on the town to help its all-volunteer force that the public safety department pleaded that no more assistance was needed.

“The firefighters and EMS people are coming from hundreds of miles away to help us,” Wilson said. “Right now, we are overflowing with help. “

Worst-case scenario

In 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant’s report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that dire: there would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

But what happened Wednesday night was much worse.

Tommy Alford, who works in a convenience store about three miles from the plant, said several volunteer firefighters were at the store when they spotted smoke.

Alford said the firefighters headed toward the scene and then between five and 10 minutes later, he heard a huge explosion.

“It was massive; it was intense,” Alford said.

A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the Texas town of West left at least two dead, leveled several homes and prompted evacuation of 2,600 people.

WEST, Texas (CNN) — An explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant Wednesday night in West Texas, causing dozens of injuries, officials said.

Explosion in TexasA hospital in Waco, Texas, has been told to anticipate 100 injured people coming in from the fertilizer plant area, an official at the medical facility said. Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Hospital, said a field triage station was being set up on a football field near the plant some 18 miles north of Waco after the Wednesday night explosion.

“We have had a steady flow of patients coming in by ambulance as well as by private vehicles,” Robinson told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He said more than a dozen injured people had been brought in by ambulances and “more than 20 — that number is continuing to climb — by private vehicle.”

A photo after the explosion — which reportedly happened around 7:50 p.m. (8:50 p.m. ET) — showed a huge plume of smoke rising high into the air.

The West Fertilizer Plant is located just north of Waco. A school and a nursing home are among the buildings near the plant, CNN affiliate KWTX reported.

Senator Brian Birdwell said he was aware of the explosion and trying to get more information, a spokesman said.

“I stand ready to assist with any and all state resources that might aid the affected area,” Birdwell said in a written statement.Explosion-in-Texas

Tommy Alford, who works in a convenience store about three miles from the plant, told CNN that several volunteer firefighters were at the store when they spotted smoke.

Alford said the firefighters headed toward the scene and then between five and 10 minutes later, he heard a massive explosion.

Hazardous material teams were being rushed to the scene, an emergency management official said.

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