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Search Continues for Survivors of Texas Explosion

April 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant has left scores injured and killed a still unconfirmed number of people. Although the cause of the explosion is yet unknown, authorities say there is no evidence of foul play. Ray Suarez talks with KERA Public Radio's BJ Austin for more on the investigation and the search for survivors.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the tragedy in Texas, we are joined from the town of West by B.J. Austin of KERA Public Radio.

B.J., is the fire out? Is the scene under control? Are emergency service personnel able to answer the area where the blast occurred?

B.J. AUSTIN, KERA Public Radio: We really don’t know if the fire is completely out. There was a briefing about an hour ago and that question was asked, and the official, the sheriff, deputy chief deputy sheriff of McLennan County said that he didn’t have knowledge of that, nor did a state trooper, Jason Reyes, who was also conducting the briefing.

So we’re not exactly sure. I did have a conversation with a state representative who this morning was able to tour the site and the neighborhood, and he said that it’s gone. It’s — the plant is no more.

RAY SUAREZ: Has anyone been recovered in an area close to the blast in the last several hours?

B.J. AUSTIN: Officials are being very, very careful with this whole thing of recovery, of discovery, and whatever, and they’re backing off of any earlier numbers of possible fatalities that they were given.

They said they’re doing this in respect of the volunteer firefighters and the citizens of West. They want to be extremely diligent and extremely careful before they say anything about the exact number of fatalities and the exact number of injured. We have heard anywhere on injured from 170, and the state representative told me he thought it was closer to 200.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, is everyone working on the presumption that there are going to be a lot more than the five to 15 that was earlier announced by law enforcement?

B.J. AUSTIN: It may seem that way, but we just don’t know.

They’re not tipping their hands in this at all. The state representative did tell me that when he toured the site, he was amazed at the level of damage done to the neighborhood homes. He said they weren’t blown over like a tornado. They were blown up with the walls blowing outward. So, he said it’s — it looks like a war zone, is what he told me.

RAY SUAREZ: You had an enormous fire, then a catastrophic explosion. Is there a chemical smell in the area? When you’re downwind from West, does it smell like you’re near a chemical plant that has some serious trouble?

B.J. AUSTIN: Well, I have to tell you, where I am right now, the only smell you smell is cows. We’re right next to a cattle yard.

I really don’t know. The area is so blocked off, not even people who live there within like a two-mile radius can get there to check the damage of their homes or get their prescription medicine or get clothing or anything. They’re — everyone is being totally kept out of the area at the direction of the ATF, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and folks.

RAY SUAREZ: In the core area, is there still material on site that still poses a danger either from fumes or from burning?

B.J. AUSTIN: We were — we asked that question at the briefing about an hour ago and frankly got a pretty evasive answer that all state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, are on site. They are monitoring and they are ensuring that the public is safe. And that’s all they would say.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a plant that’s had safety problems or regulatory problems in the past?

B.J. AUSTIN: We do know from comments made by the superintendent of education that a couple of months ago, in February possibly, the plant did a controlled burn of some lumber and trees that were on site, and they did a controlled burn, and they asked that the intermediate school nearby be evacuated while they do that controlled burn.

But other than that, that’s the only thing or concern issued. One gentleman who cannot return to his home — the blast knocked his windows and doors off and knocked him to the ground last night — he tells me that he’s had concerns about possible chemical contamination, but he never thought there’d be an explosion, and he said he never really pursued those concerns, but he did have them.

RAY SUAREZ: Ammonium nitrate is a commonly used fertilizer. Is this an agricultural area of Texas? Is West a logical place to have a plant of this kind?

B.J. AUSTIN: Yes, indeed, it is.

And the plant has — services all of the farmers and ranchers in this Central Texas area around West. And one person told me that it’s been there a long time and that a lot of things have just grown up around it. A lot of houses, apartment buildings and the school have just grown up around the plant.

RAY SUAREZ: B.J. Austin of KERA in Dallas, thanks a lot for joining us.

B.J. AUSTIN: You’re welcome.