WEST, Texas (AP) — Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thursday for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris while the community awaited word on the number of dead.
Initial reports put the fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.
A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and crumpled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away from the town about 20 miles north of Waco.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.
There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
On Thursday evening, several hundred people packed St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in downtown West for a non-denominational church service. A victim relief services chaplain said prayers and hymns were offered in honor of blast victims.
The explosion was apparently touched off by a fire, but there was no indication what sparked the blaze. The company had been cited by regulators for what appeared to be minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.
The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape Thursday was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.