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Fertilizer Plant Explosion Devastates Texas Town, Forces Residents to Evacuate

April 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Rescuers worked in wet weather today to find survivors amid the rubble after the fiery explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant last night. Late today, authorities acknowledged there were fatalities, but declined to confirm how many. Earlier estimates ranged from five to 15, though there were reports the toll would go much higher.

The cause of the fire and explosion is still not known. Officials said today there’s no evidence of foul play.

A man using his cell phone captured the moment last night when the west fertilizer company plant exploded.

MAN: You OK? You OK?

GIRL: Dad, I can’t hear. I can’t hear.

MAN: Cover your ears.

GIRL: Get out of here. Please get out of here.

RAY SUAREZ: That flattened buildings within a five-block radius and sent shockwaves out for miles around.

KEVIN SMITH, Texas: I was actually picked up and thrown about 10 feet, because I was standing at the end of my bed, and then where I landed was by the bathroom, about 10 feet closer into the house.

ULIZES CASTANEDA, Texas: I turned around and watched the explosion as it happened, and it threw me down into the bed of the truck. Next thing I know, shrapnel was falling down everywhere, burning all of us. And we just got out and ran.

RAY SUAREZ: The thunderous blast occurred in the town of West, Texas, a small farming community of 2,800 people that lies about 20 miles north of Waco.

Today, rescue workers continued to search the smoldering rubble for survivors.

Waco Police Sergeant William Swanton:

SGT. WILLIAM SWANTON, Waco Police Department: The number one priority is to rescue and save lives in the event we can do that. The number two priority is to make sure there are no further injuries and nobody else gets hurt.

RAY SUAREZ: Swanton added that cold, rainy weather had helped extinguish fires and keep concerns over chemicals in the air at bay.

WILLIAM SWANTON: There is no lingering threat. I think, again, the weather has kind of helped us with that. It has obviously dispersed some of the smoke. At this point, I have been told that that is not a concern.

RAY SUAREZ: The explosion destroyed at least 75 houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, a middle school, and a nursing home from which 133 patients were evacuated. First-responders and local residents described a terrifying scene.

MAN: As soon as I ran up, there was a woman holding two babies. And they — they were soaked in blood, and one of them was just — one of the babies looked like it wasn’t responding. And it’s just horrible to see something like that.

RAY SUAREZ: For Texas Trooper D.L. Wilson, the aftermath was reminiscent of another fertilizer explosion, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, 18 years ago tomorrow.

D.L. WILSON, Texas Department of Public Safety: I can tell you I was there. I walked through the blast area. I searched some houses earlier tonight. Massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Same kind of anhydrous exploded, so you can imagine what kind of damage we’re looking at there.

RAY SUAREZ: What caused the plant to catch fire and explode is still unclear. Officials are treating the area as a crime scene and say they will await reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

WILLIAM SWANTON: There is no indication of crime at this point from what I’m made aware of. That is what we will investigate. ATF will investigate. The state fire marshal will investigate to determine if in fact there was some type of crime there.

RAY SUAREZ: What is known is that at around 7:30 yesterday evening, the West Fertilizer Company plant caught fire. Local firefighters, many of them volunteers, responded and immediately began evacuating the area.

About 25 minutes later, the spectacular blast occurred, knocking out windows miles away. First-responders quickly set up a triage station at a football field to treat the injured, while others searched for survivors. Beds were set up at nearby high school for those who couldn’t return home.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked Texans and all Americans to keep the people of West in their thoughts and prayers.

RICK PERRY: In a small town like West, they know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family. It’s touched practically everyone in that town.

RAY SUAREZ: Perry is asking the federal government to declare a state of emergency for McLennan County, the home county for the little town of West.