An explosion Wednesday night at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed an unknown number of people and sent flames shooting high into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin, causing major damage to nearby buildings and injuring several others.
Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said just after midnight that there were confirmed fatalities.
A dispatcher with the West Fire Department says the explosion happened just before 8 p.m. Wednesday night.
Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs. "We did get there and got that taken care of," mayor Tommy Muska said.
"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't gonna be here tomorrow," Muska said. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town's department went to the plant to fight a fire about 6:30 p.m., and the blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his home nearby.
Several firefighters were injured in the blast, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported.
Authorities were working through the night to evacuate several nearby residents.
Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, with even Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement. "We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."
Department of Public Safety troopers were using their squad cars to transport those injured by the blast and fire at the plant, a spokeswoman for the department's Waco office said. She said six helicopters were also dispatched to help out.
West is located about 120 miles north of Austin, or about 20 miles north of Waco. The plant is located at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive , just east of Interstate 35.
Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene and hours after the blast, fires were still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings.
Al Vanek, a West City Council member, said first-responders were treating victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center.
"Tomorrow is going to be a very sad day," Vanek said.
The high school football field, which was being used as a staging area, was later evacuated due to a concern of another explosion. A triage center was then set up at the town's community center.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received more than 100 injured people for treatment, including at least 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts.
McLennan County first responders were calling for all hands on deck. Ellis County was sending the South County Strike Team and several volunteer fire departments to the town of West to help out.
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke coming from the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home. She said she drove over to see what was happening, and that when she got out of her car two boys ran toward her screaming that the authorities told them to leave because the plant was going to explode. She said she drove about a block before the blast happened.
"It was like being in a tornado," the 58-year-old said by phone. "Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield."
"It was like the whole earth shook."
She drove 10 blocks and called her husband and asked him to come get her. When they got to their home about 2 miles south of town, her husband told her what he'd seen: a huge fireball that rose like "a mushroom cloud."
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.
KXAS, the NBC affiliate in Dallas, said people as far north as south Arlington felt the explosion.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas are being sent to the site.
Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster says her group is working with emergency management officials in the town of West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She says teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.
Family looking for information on patients being taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center can call 254-202-1100.
All West ISD campuses will
be closed Thursday and Friday.
This report contains material from The Associated Press and media outlets in Waco and Dallas-Fort Worth. KXAN reporters David Scott, Chris Sadeghi also contributed to this report.
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