Update at 10:34 a.m. Thursday: The Texas Department of Transportation has issued a warning to expect traffic delays in and around Waco because of the explosion in West. But outside of FM2114, which runs through the heart of the impacted area, no state roads have been shut down by the blast.
“We do have a warning up letting people know they could incur delays,” TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said. “We don’t necessarily know that they will, but it’s certainly possible.”
Cross said the department knows of no bridge or structural concerns along Interstate 35, but that those will be monitored locally.
Some of the Farm to Market roads south of town were already under construction. Resurfacing projects are under way on FM2311 from near downtown West all the way to Highway 31, several miles south near Axtell. A similar project runs south of West on FM3149, from its connection with FM2311 across I-35 to the town of Wiggins.
Here is a link to roadway closures and conditions: http://www.drivetexas.org/Full/
— Ray Leszcynski
Update at 10:21 a.m. Thursday: At a 10 a.m. press briefing in West, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said earlier reports of looting were overblown, and that there was just a single incident that occurred soon after the explosion at the fertilizer plant last night.
He still couldn’t update the number of the injured and wounded but said three to five emergency workers remain missing. The confirmed number of injured remains at 160, and “we’re still sticking with the number five to 15” dead, Swanton said.
Emergency workers, including crews from Burleson, Fort Hood and Texas Task Force 1, are still searching for survivors of the blast that devastated much of West. Oncor employees are accompanying rescue workers to make sure they don’t step on downed power lines, and workers are “shoring up some areas before they go in,” Swanton said.
“It’s a very slow, methodical search,” he said.
— Robert Wilonsky
Update at 10:05 a.m. Thursday: Washington bureau chief Todd J. Gillman reports that President Barack Obama has spoken to Texas Gov. Rick Perry this morning and has tried to contact West Mayor Tommy Mouska. The president is attending a memorial service this morning for victims of Monday’s deadly explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Update at 9:55 a.m. Thursday: The Associated Press reports that the Czech ambassador to the United States is en route to West:
The Czech ambassador to the United States is traveling to the town devastated by the fertilizer plant explosion that’s killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160.
Ambassador Petr Gandalovic is scheduled to arrive Thursday in West, which has an honorary consulate in recognition of the significant number of residents in the area with Czech heritage.
Martin Pizinger, spokesman for the Czech embassy in Washington, says Gandalovic “would like to support the community in their time of sadness.” Pizinger says the ambassador intends to personally express the support of the Czech Republic.
Gandalovic, ambassador since 2011, has visited West before.
Pizinger says the explosion has dominated headlines in the Czech Republic.
Udpate at 9:40 a.m. Thursday: Wednesday night’s explosion left sidewalks in downtown West littered with glass from broken storefront windows.
Workers at West Furniture on East Oak Street were working quickly to board up the broken windows to protect their washers, dryers and other appliances from the cold rain.
Across the street, Mary Galvan cried as she swept up broken glass from the sidewalk in front of the West Thrift Shop that she manages for the West Area Ministerial Alliance.
“Nothing like this has ever happened,” she said. “It is just terrifying.”
The blast left the store’s cash register broken and ruined items that had been on display in the windows. Still, Galvan said she planned to keep the doors open Thursday.
“If anyone need blankets or coats or anything, they can come,” she said.
— Matthew Watkins
Update at 9:35 a.m.: We will be updating a gallery of staff and wire photos from West throughout the day.
Update at 9:05 a.m. Thursday: Todd J. Gillman in our Washington bureau reports that FEMA officials are keeping President Barack Obama updated on developments in West. The White House also issued a statement from the president saying that “our prayers go out to the people of West” and that the community “will have the support of the American people.”
Update at 8:30 a.m. Thursday: Sgt W. Patrick Swanton, the Waco police spokesman handling media briefings in West, said at a press conference a little after 8:20 this morning that search and rescue teams are still looking for survivors.
That “is good news to me,” he said. That means authorities have “not gotten to the point of no return.”
Swanton did not update the number of those injured or killed, and he did not release names of any of the casualties. He repeated the earlier figure of five to 15 people killed but said that’s based on “very limited” information from “folks at the scene,” including local, state and federal officials.
One emergency worker who had been reported as missing, a constable serving as a volunteer firefighter, has been found hospitalized with “serious” injuries. Three or four first responders, among the first to fight the fire before the fertilizer plant exploded shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday, remain missing, Swanton said.
Swanton also said a “small amount” of looting was reported overnight.
“There are unidentified people in the neighborhood” around the plant, he said. The looters are likely people “coming in from the street,” and they pose “a significant concern.” People will be restricted from entering the neighborhood, and “we will apologize later for putting some people out.”
The plant itself and surrounding homes are still smoldering, and Swanton said he did not know how many people may remain beneath the rubble.
“There’s a significant area around the plant that’s been destroyed,” Swanton said. “Homes have been destroyed. Homes have been flattened. Part of that community is destroyed.”
Swanton said there is still no indication of what started the fire. He also said its not known whether the volunteer firefighters who first responded were using foam or water to put out the flames. Swanton said they were aware that flammable chemicals were involved.
“I feel very confident they knew what they were doing,” he said.
Swanton said he didn’t know what communication, if any, owners of the plant were having with investigators. He said one manager or possible owner was reportedly on his way to talk to officials but didn’t know if that had occurred yet.
He said the town is taking care of its own, with help from the Red Cross and other agencies. The Salvation Army has four emergency kitchens on site in West. Two are from the D-FW area — one from Fort Worth and one from Waxahachie. Salvation Army workers are distributing food and water to victims and emergency responders.
Donations may be made at salvationarmydfw.org.
Swanton also wanted to note the fact that the West fire department is a volunteer department.
“They probably have a very large contingent of people willing to risk their lives … for their community at a phone call,” he said.
— Robert Wilonsky, Brandon Formby
Editior’s note: The story below was originally published about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and was updated throughout the night and early Thursday morning.
By SELWYN CRAWFORD, TASHA TSIAPERAS and TRISTAN HALLMAN
A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked the town of West, north of Waco, causing multiple casualties and leaving people trapped and buildings on fire.
Emergency personnel were bracing for the possibility of dozens of dead in the blast, which was reported at 7:53 p.m. and could be heard 45 miles away in Waxahachie.
Although authorities confirmed that at least five to 15 people had died, shortly before 5 a.m. they were still saying they did not have an official total. They have said they expect to find more bodies as they continue to search the area.
West’s EMS director, Dr. George Smith, confirmed after 4 a.m. that two emergency personnel had been killed in the explosion, which occurred at West Fertilizer Co., just off Interstate 35, about 80 miles south of Dallas.
Smith said he could not yet confirm whether three to five firefighters and one police officer who have been reported as missing had died.
Officials said more than 160 people had been treated for injuries at various hospitals, but that number could continue to climb as emergency personnel search for survivors at 5 a.m.
A blaze had broken out earlier at the plant, and the explosion occurred while firefighters were trying to put it out.
“It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonium nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb,” said Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel in West. “I live about a thousand feet from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There’s houses leveled that were right next to it.”
Authorities were evacuating residents of the town of 2,600, including more than 130 occupants of a nearby nursing home badly damaged in the blast that had spread debris across a wide area.
City Council member Al Vanek said a four-block area around the explosion’s epicenter was “totally decimated.” Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city’s Murrah Federal Building.
Numerous buildings were on fire, including the nursing home and West Middle School. An emergency dispatcher calling for multiple ambulances said, “We do have a lot of injured here.”
Everything around the plant had been blown apart or collapsed, including a nearby apartment complex with about 50 units that had been destroyed.
Among the damaged buildings were 50 to 75 houses.
“That whole side of town looks like a disaster,” Bill Manolakis said. “Who in their right mind sticks a damn plant next to houses?”
Witnesses described a chaotic scene, with rescuers and evacuees scrambling as traffic backed up for miles on I-35 and livestock ran loose.
A triage center that had been set up at West High School was being moved after emergency personnel became worried that harmful fumes might spread. Authorities were also monitoring a second tank near the blast site that was prompting concerns of another explosion.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said residents were bracing for news of neighbors’ deaths.
“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,” he said. “We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for. That’s the most important thing right now.”
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town’s department went to the plant to fight the blaze, which officials said was reported at 7:29 p.m. The blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
Muska said the main fire was under control by 11 p.m., but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant’s ruins.
The disaster prompted a large-scale deployment of law enforcement and emergency personnel from the region, with hospitals and fire-rescue personnel in Dallas among those ready to help. Hospitals as far away as Temple had been asked to prepare for hundreds of patients, and numerous emergency helicopters had been dispatched to assist, though high winds were hampering their flights.
Department of Public Safety troopers took some victims to hospitals in Waco, which is about 20 miles south of West.
Glenn Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, said the hospital had received nearly 100 patients who arrived in ambulances and private vehicles.
He said more than 40 people were in serious condition, with injuries including burns, broken bones and large lacerations. But he said he expected most patients would be released throughout the night.
He said that though some people were still in surgery about 1:30 a.m., “many have already been treated and released.”
All the patients who had come to the hospital had survived, Robinson said. Ambulances from across Central Texas had helped transport the patients, and more than 250 off-duty doctors and nurses responded as word of the emergency spread.
Bill Bohannan told the Waco Tribune-Herald he witnessed the devastating blast while visiting his parents’ home near the plant.
“I was standing next to my car with my fiancée, waiting for my parents to come out and [the plant] exploded,” he said. “It knocked us into the car. … Every house within about four blocks is blown apart,” he said.
People as far as 50 miles away reported feeling what seemed like an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the blast generated enough force to register like a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.
Paul Manigrasso, a Gulf War veteran, felt the blast in Waxahachie.
“Based on my naval experience … we knew immediately what it was but cannot believe it occurred 40 miles away,” he told KWTX-TV.
Andy Bartee of Dallas was driving home from Austin when he stopped at a convenience store about five miles from the explosion. Suddenly the lights went out and the explosion rocked the building.
“You could feel it in your chest and ears,” he said. Ceiling tiles fell and pictures on the wall broke.
“It was pretty nuts,” he said. “It looked like a mushroom cloud. It looked like an atom bomb had been dropped,” Bartee said. “I’ve never seen or felt anything like that.”
Debby Marak said she had seen the plant burning and had driven closer to see what was happening but reversed direction after two boys ran toward her screaming that authorities had told them to flee because the plant was going to explode.
“It was like being in a tornado,” Marak said of the blast that erupted as she was driving away. “Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole Earth shook.”
In the disarray surrounding the explosion, officials were working to get a grasp on the magnitude of the disaster.
The American Red Cross was sending teams from throughout the region and was working to find shelter for the evacuees.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to West, and Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were monitoring developments.
“We are … gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident,” he said. “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.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be investigating the incident, but officials have emphasized that they have not determined whether the incident was anything but an industrial accident. However, authorities have said they will treat the blast zone as a crime scene until they have determined the cause of the explosion for certain.
West is widely known for its annual Westfest, which celebrates the city’s Czech heritage. It’s the home of several well-known bakeries, including the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery.
The disaster was drawing worldwide media attention, as well as widespread expressions of sympathy. Pope Francis issued a request online: “Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.”