WEST, Texas — Rescue workers searched the rubble of a fertilizer plant Thursday, looking for missing firefighters and survivors of a huge explosion that tore through this small central Texas town Wednesday night, killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 160 others, laying waste to buildings, and potentially sending toxic fumes into the air, authorities said.
Homes and businesses were leveled in the normally quiet town of West, just north of Waco, and there was widespread destruction in the downtown area, Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said Thursday.
“At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue,” he said.
In a second morning news conference, Swanton said the fires were still smoldering at the plant, but “there is nothing out of control over there at this point.”
At least five people were killed and scores were being treated at area hospitals, Swanton said, while emphasizing that early estimates of casualties could change. Three to five firefighters were missing, he said, mostly first responders from a volunteer fire department who rushed to the scene before the blast.
“They were actively fighting the fire at the time the explosion occurred,” he said.
As many as 75 homes have been damaged, along with several businesses and a 50-unit apartment complex.
“Part of that community is gone,” Swanton said.
There was no evidence indicating criminal activity, he said, “but we’re not ruling that out.”
The White House issued a statement from President Barack Obama that said, “Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas,” and he pledged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies would join state and local efforts “to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue.”
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas called the explosion “a truly nightmare scenario,” and said that information about death and injury is “very preliminary.” But he said that because West is so small, “this tragedy has most likely hit every family. It has touched practically everybody in that town.”
Obama, he said, had phoned him from Air Force One, on his way to Boston, to offer his support.
The disaster began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco. Local volunteer firefighters responded, said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores.
“The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”
The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, said in brief televised remarks that 50 to 60 houses in a five-block area were heavily damaged, and that search-and-rescue teams worked through the night. A nursing home, with 133 residents was among those hit. The fate of those within it was, like so much on the scene, not immediately clear.