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Up to 15 people dead, more than 160 injured in Texas fertilizer plant blast

By Regina Dennis, Reuters
| www.cos-mag.com
The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early April 18, 2013.

Officials are yet to determine whether the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas Wednesday night was an industrial accident — until then the site is being treated as a crime scene.

Rescue crews searched the wreckage of a fertilizer plant and dozens of demolished homes for bodies on Thursday after a fiery explosion injured more than 160 people and prompted the evacuation of half a small Texas town.

Police initially estimated that five to 15 people had died in the Wednesday night blast, but officials said the death toll could climb as the search continued. They were treating the blast site as a possible crime scene.

A fire had broken out at the plant before the 8 p.m. explosion rocked West, a town of 2,700 people about 32 kilometres north of Waco and 130 kilometres south of Dallas.

Witness Kevin Smith told CBS News he had just climbed the stairs to the second floor of his home when he felt the blast.

"The house exploded. It was just a bright flash and a roar, I thought it was lightning striking the house," Smith said. "I felt myself flying through the air about 10 feet, and it took a second or two to realize that the roof had caved in on me so I knew it wasn't lightning."

Light rain was falling and winds had picked up to 35 kph Thursday morning, conditions that could complicate the recovery effort or prompt additional evacuations.

"I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."

Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco admitted 28 of more than 100 people it treated, with five in the intensive care unit, said David Argueta, vice president of operations.

Ground motion from the blast, triggered by a fire of unknown origin at the West Fertilizer Co plant, registered as a magnitude 2.1 seismic tremor and created a jolt felt in Dallas and beyond, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

Waco Police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said investigators had not yet established what caused the fire or blast.

"We are not indicating that it is a crime, but we don't know," Swanton said early on Thursday, nine hours after the blast. "What that means to us is that until we know it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene."

West Mayor Tommy Muska said five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first to arrive at the fertilizer plant were missing. Firefighters had been battling the fire and evacuating nearby houses and a nursing home for about 20 minutes before the explosion occurred.

Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said about half the town, eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shift.

But emergency management personnel said there was no immediate danger to the public from the smoke, Swanton said.

Wilson said 50 to 75 houses were damaged by the explosion and fire, and a nearby 50-unit apartment complex had been reduced to "a skeleton standing up." Muska put the number of destroyed homes at between 60 and 80.

Wilson said 133 people were evacuated from the nursing home, which was heavily damaged, but it was not known how many residents had been hurt. A middle school also was badly damaged.

Three hospitals in Waco and Dallas reported treating more than 160 injuries from the blast.

"We are seeing a lot of lacerations and orthopedic-type injuries… things you would expect in an explosion," said Argueta at Hillcrest Baptist.

Jason Shelton, 33, a father of two who lives less than a mile (1.6 km) from the plant, said he heard fire trucks heading toward the facility five minutes before the explosion and felt the blast as he stood on his front porch.

"My windows started rattling and my kids screaming," Shelton said. "The screen door hit me in the forehead... and all the screens blew off my windows."

Governor Rick Perry said 21 National Guard members had been sent to help with emergency response efforts.

The Obama administration said it was monitoring local and state response through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it is sending a "large investigation team" to the scene.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman, Tim Gaynor, David Bailey, Marice Richter and Ian Simpson; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone and Doina Chiacu)

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