Up to 15 dead, over 160 injured in huge explosion at Texas fertiliser plant

Authorities in town of West say blast site being treated as a crime scene

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 13:49

Rescue workers searched the rubble of a fertilizer plant in a small Texas town today looking for missing firefighters and survivors of a huge explosion that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others.

Homes and businesses were levelled 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.

"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, Sgt Swanton said, while emphasising 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," Sgt 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."

Mr 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," Mr 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.

A few miles to the north of West, the school gymnasium in the town of Abbott was converted into an emergency shelter for evacuees who lived near the plant. But at 3am today, the nearly 100 cots were empty, and dozens of volunteers, including faculty and teenage students, waited for a rush of people that never came. Bottles of water sat in bundled packages outside the school, untouched.

Rodney Watson, the chief deputy for the Hill County sheriff's office, said he believed those who were evacuated were staying with friends or relatives. "Right now, there's not a whole lot that can be done," he said. "They got the fire contained, and there's no immediate danger with the chemicals or anything. There's no hazmat situation."

A spokesman for the FBI in San Antonio said Thursday morning there has been no indication of criminal activity in the plant explosion. The spokesman, Special Agent Erik Vasys, said the agency has personnel on-scene to assist local officials if needed.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is on the scene, and the US Chemical Safety Board, the federal entity that investigates chemical disasters, said that it has sent its own investigative team to the site, which "is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon," according to the agency.

The Red Cross in the Dallas and Fort Worth region said in a statement posted online that it had crews on the way to help. Red Cross workers were looking for a safe place to house residents who had been displaced. Swanton said the town would help its own.

"I can promise you that the city of West will not let a person stand out in the rain," he said. "They will bring you into their home, and you will be comfortable." Zak Covar, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said during the governor's news conference that the company has been in business since 1962 and is one of a number of small fertilizer companies across rural Texas. The company has "an average compliance history," with one air quality complaint registered in 2006. In that episode, on June 9th, 2006, according to state records, residents complained to the commission about the "ammonia smell" that was "very bad last night."

That occurrence was investigated by the agency and resolved with the granting of two air permits to the company by the end of that year, Covar said. The company filed its most recent risk management plans with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in June 2011, and stated that it stored 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on the site. That filing stated that the company had just seven full-time employees and had not accidentally released any ammonia in the previous five years.

The company laid out its "worst-case scenario" in the filing, which it stated would be "the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes," or "a release from a break in a transfer hose." Because it was built in 1962, the facility was grandfathered into state regulations, Mr Covar said. The company was supposed to get reauthorized in 2004, but failed to do so. Covar would not speculate on the reason they failed to do it. He also said that currently the agency did not detect health concerns in the air near the facility. Gov Perry, in response to questions, declined to speculate about whether the regulatory financing and oversight was adequate. Records from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration record that the agency's last inspection of the facility occurred 28 years ago, in 1985. The agency found five violations that were considered "serious," including some improper handling of anhydrous ammonia. The company was fined $30.

West is a small country town of just 2,700 people. Its name refers not to its location on the state map, in northern central Texas, but to its first postmaster, TM West. An estimated 300 to 400 first responders and officials from numerous local, state and federal agencies - sheriff's deputies, volunteer firefighters, ATF agents, police officers, medics, constables - have converged on West, as have dozens of reporters from media outlets around the country and the world.

The grass behind the West Church of Christ became a parking lot for the triage area overnight; the auction barn off Interstate 35 - with a sign reading "Cattle Sale Thursday" - was turned into a staging site for news conferences. Those speaking at the conferences had to raise their voices to be heard above the mooing cows in the nearby livestock pens.

NYT

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