WEST, Texas – A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday injured dozens of people and killed an unknown number of others, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin and leveling buildings for blocks in every direction.
The explosion at West Fertilizer in West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. It sent flames shooting high into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said just after midnight that an unknown number of people had died.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs “your prayers.”
“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,” Muska said.
A member of the City Council, Al Vanek, said there is a four-block area around the explosion “that is totally decimated.”
Wilson said the damage was comparable to the destruction caused by the 1995 bomb blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town’s department went to the plant to fight a fire about 6:30 p.m., and the blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his home nearby.
He said the main fire was under control as of 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.
Among the damaged buildings was what appeared to be a housing complex with a collapsed roof, a nearby middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.
“We did get there and got that taken care of,” Muska said.
Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town of about 2,800 people was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.