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Texas fertiliser plant blast: Death toll confirmed at 12

Many of those killed are thought to have been volunteer firefighters

The death toll from Wednesday's explosion at a fertiliser plant near Waco, Texas, has been confirmed at 12.

The exact number had been unknown since the huge blast which ripped through a neighbourhood that makes up around one-fifth of West, a town of 2,800. But today Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said it was "with a heavy heart" that he confirmed 12 bodies had been pulled from the area of the plant explosion about 20 miles north of Waco.

Just under 200 people were injured by the explosion.

The names of the dead had already filtered through the small, close-knit town. Among them were a small group of firefighters and others from the emergency services who may have rushed toward the plant to battle the blaze which preceded the blast..

Reyes said he could not confirm how many of those killed were first responders. 

He said authorities had searched and cleared 150 buildings by Friday morning and still had another 25 to examine.

The mourning had begun at a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church the previous night. 

"We know everyone that was there first, in the beginning," said Christina Rodarte, 46, who has lived in West for 27 years. "There's no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders, because anytime there's anything going on, the fire department is right there, all volunteer." 

One victim Rodarte knew and whose name was released was 52-year-old Captain Kenny Harris of the Dallas Fire Department, a West resident who raced to the scene to assist local volunteer fire-fighters, despite being off-duty.

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent yesterday scouring the scene for clues as to the blast's cause. A recent report submitted to the Texas Department of State Health Services suggested the facility contained a stockpile of up to 270 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and 100,000 pounds of liquid ammonia.

The disaster has echoes of the deadliest industrial accident in the history of the state and, indeed, the US: the Texas City Disaster of 1947, when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded on board a ship in the Port of Texas, near Houston, causing widespread fires that eventually killed almost 600 people. Just one member of the City’s fire department survived.