Texas explosion: Biblical scene of destruction on Waco’s doorstep

Another tragedy strikes Texas town as explosion at fertiliser plant kills up to 15 and flattens landscape

Rescue teams were picking through the devastation in the small Texas town of West, near Waco, after a massive explosion at a fertiliser company flattened the surrounding neighbourhood. Initial estimates put the death toll at between five and 15, with at least 160 injured. Among the missing were three to four volunteer firefighters who were responding to a blaze at the facility when the explosion happened on Wednesday night.

Click here for more pictures from the fallout

Waco police Sergeant William Patrick Swanton said in a morning press conference that the emergency response was still in its search and rescue phase, but that eventually it would have to become one of recovery.

“They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes,” he said. “They have not gotten to the point of no return where they don’t think that there’s anybody still alive.”

The blast, which could be heard 45 miles away and shook the ground with a force equivalent to a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, happened just before 8pm on Wednesday, levelling up to 80 homes in the blocks around the facility. As a mushroom cloud climbed into the sky, more than 1,000 people in the town of around 2,800 were left without power. An apartment complex was ripped to shreds, a middle school was reportedly in flames, and 133 people, many of them injured, were evacuated from a nursing home. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. “It looks like a war zone.”

Emergency services said ammonia may have caused the fireball at West Fertilizer Inc, which reportedly had 20 tonnes of anhydrous ammonia on site. The site was being treated as a crime scene, officials said, though in the immediate aftermath there was no indication of the blast being anything other than an industrial accident.

The fire at West Fertilizer, around 80 miles south of Dallas, reportedly began at around 6pm on Wednesday. Local volunteer fire-fighters were battling the blaze and evacuating nearby homes as a precaution against toxic fumes when the ammonia exploded.

Jason Shelton, 33, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel, told the Dallas Morning News: “It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on [it] and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb… I live about a thousand feet from it and it blew my screen door off, and my back windows.”

Debby Marak, 58, had just finished teaching a religion class when she spotted the smoke, and decided to drive across town to see what was going on. When she got close to the plant, however, two boys came running towards her car, yelling that it was about to explode. She turned the car around, but didn’t get far before the blast engulfed her. “It was like being in a tornado,” she told the Associated Press. “Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield.”

Sergeant Swanton said that a residual burning underneath additional chemical tanks had been brought under control and no longer appeared to be a threat. More than half the town had been evacuated, and Swanton revealed there had been reports of “a small amount of looting” in West following the fire, describing it as “a significant concern”.

As the injured began to emerge from the blast zone on Wednesday night, an emergency hospital was set up on a local sports field to treat patients with burns, shrapnel wounds and other injuries. The local blood bank had queues of more than 200 people stretching around the block despite incessant rain, although there were fears that given the recommended interval between donations they would soon run short.

More than 100 of those injured in the explosion were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Centre some 20 miles away in Waco. Today, 38 were said to be in a critical condition.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, President Barack Obama, in Boston for a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, offered his prayers to the residents of West, saying, “They will have the support of the American people.” Texas state Governor Rick Perry said 21 National Guard members had been sent to assist the rescue effort. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene,” Perry said.

Today, it also emerged that the facility was cited in 2006 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit, after a complaint of a strong smell of ammonia.

The authorities were also aware of the quantities of ammonia on site, despite its proximity to schools and the nursing home.

Nitrogen fertiliser a lethal mixture

For years farmers would struggle to get enough nitrogen fertiliser on to their fields. This changed after 1909 when discovered how to convert inert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into ammonia. Now millions of tons are produced every year as fertiliser.

Anhydrous ammonia is a variant that is stored at temperatures above -33C, and is highly explosive if it mixes with air. Chemical plants contain it under high pressure in special tanks. The chemical itself is highly caustic, causing skin burns, eye irritation and lung damage.

Ammonium nitrate is the chemical constituent used to make explosives used mostly in the mining and demolition industry.

Eyewitness: ‘There was a bright flash and a roar. I thought it was lightning’

As the tiny Texan town of West awoke, residents may have hoped their memories of the previous night had just been a terrible dream.

Instead, they were forced to begin coming to terms with the shock of the huge explosion at the West Fertiliser facility that has so far left up to 15 people dead and more than 160 injured.

“[My] house exploded,” Kevin Smith told CBS News. “It was just a bright flash and a roar – I thought it was lightning striking the house … I felt myself flying through the air about 10 feet, and it took a second or two to realise that the roof had caved in on me so I knew it wasn’t lightning.”

Up to 70 homes and buildings were torn apart by the force of the blast, which was said to be the equivalent of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake.

Authorities said a nearby block  of flats was reduced to little more than “a skeleton”. Some 133  residents of a nursing home in the area were forced to evacuate, as toxic fumes from the site spread across the neighbourhood.

Another West resident, Julie Zahirniak, said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the plant when it exploded. She said the blast threw Anthony four feet in the air, breaking his ribs.

“The fire was so high,” she told the Associated Press. “It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking.”

Erick Perez, 21, had been playing basketball close to West Fertiliser when the fire started. At first, he and his friends thought nothing of it. Around half an hour later, the blast threw him and his nephew on to the ground, and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris.

“The explosion was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Mr Perez said. “This town is hurt really bad.”

As emergency services continued their search-and-rescue operations in the hope of locating more survivors, residents who  escaped the worst of the damage began attempting to clear up the mess created by the explosion.

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Mary Galvan told The Dallas Morning News. She was crying as she swept up broken glass from the pavement in front of the West Thrift Shop she manages – a small gesture towards what will inevitably be a long and painstaking process. “It is just terrifying,” she said.

At a news conference, Texas Governor Rick Perry praised the emergency services and ordinary residents who rushed to help victims of the blast.

“Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community,” Mr Perry said. “This tragedy has most likely hit every family and touched practically everyone in that town.”

Enjoli Liston

News
Alex Salmond said he accepted 'the democratic verdict of the people'
newsSNP leader says Scotland must move forward as 'one nation'
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Assistant Plymouth

£10000 - £20000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week