All Eyes Are On West, Texas, After Fertilizer Plant Explosion

The farming town and Czech community just north of Waco, known around the state for its kolaches, reels from last nights catastrophic fire and explosion, which left countless people injured and an unknown number dead.

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AP/Michael Ainsworth, The Dallas Morning News

(Updates below)

When news first spread of an explosion in West comma Texas, before its magnitude was really known, most Texans thought of kolaches, the pastry the town is known for. Which is why this photo, taken by an Instagram user who had stopped for gas at the beloved Czech Stop—as so many Texans traveling up and down I-35 do—really drove the horror home. 

(Instagram, Andy Pardee)

Not long after that, this YouTube footage of a father and a child, watching what began as a fire at the West Fertilizer plant tranform into something much, much worse, spread across the Internet.

(WARNING: this is disturbing footage, both during and after the explosion. The good news is, its maker was around to put it on the Internet soon afterwards.)

(Update: The Austin American-Statesman spoke to the man who shot the footage, Derrick Hurtt).

Just two days after the explosions at the Boston Marathon, what is still presumed to be a straightforward industrial accident gripped the nation. The incident was reportedly seen, felt, and heard as far away as Waxahachie, and registered as the equivalent of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake with the U.S. Geological Service. 

The injury toll was at least 160, according to Kirsten Moon of the Waco Tribune-Herald. As of 5 a.m., officials were saying between five and fifteen people had died, but that number could rise (see update below). Those casualties would likely be plant workers or first responders to the fire, though a fifty-unit apartment building and anywhere from fiftyto sixty houses were devastated by the explosion’s impact. It was not yet known how many people might have been inside those residences. A 133-person nursing home near the plant had been mostly evacuated before impact.

As Manny Fernandez and Ravi Somaiya of the New York Times reported:

“Right now we have a tremendous amount of injuries, probably over 100 injuries at this time,” D.L. Wilson, a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters at a press conference early Thursday morning. “We do have confirmed fatalities,” he said, but declined to say how many because a search of the area was being conducted.

He compared the destruction to Iraq war scenes and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, an act of terrorism using explosives made from fertilizer. “I can tell you I was there, I walked through the blast area, I searched some houses earlier tonight. It was massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.”

“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,” West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters, as Betsy Blaney of the Associated Press reported.

The Tribune-Herald further reported:

Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center had treated more than 100 patients as of midnight, including 14 that likely would have to be admitted, but no patients had died, CEO Glenn Robinson said. Victims suffered mostly from cuts, broken bones and other injuries expected from flying debris, he said. Many had been treated and released.

More than 30 victims of the West explosion were transferred to Waco’s Providence Hospital, and about nine went to a burn center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas for treatment, Robinson said.

Two injured children were transferred to McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple, he said.

The hospital is asking the public to give blood Thursday at Carter BloodCare on West Waco Drive in Waco or Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple.

KWTX in Waco was the most aggressive and specific of the Texas news outlets when it came to speculating about numbers, which, if true—and as of this writing, there remains no confirmation—would be absolutely devastating:

Six firefighters, two paramedics and a police officer are confirmed dead and seven nursing home residents were missing after the blast according to West EMS Director Dr. George Smith, who said earlier Wednesday night as many as 60 or 70 people may have died in the blast.

Smith said early Thursday morning he expects more bodies will be found during the search of damaged and destroyed homes.

As things inevitably go in the Internet Age, the disaster instantly acquired a Wikipedia page, and also became Twitter’s top trending topic:

The plant will be treated as a crime scene as a matter of protocol, as Brent Zwerneman of the San Antonio Express-News reported, but officials still tend to believe it was an accident. Zwerneman also wrote that air quality was no longer an issue around West, and that for the moment, local police (which included law enforcement from nearby Waco) were still in search and rescue mode.

While speculating about the exact cause of the fire is no more factual at the moment than the fake photo (of a Big Spring refinery explosion in 2008) that’s been circulating, Mike Elk of In These Times and Lee Fang of the Nation both focused on how much (or rather, how little) federal safety oversight there had been at the plant. And Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News reported that the plant had issued a report to the Environmental Protection Agency that said its 54,000 lbs. of anhydrous ammonia did not pose a safety risk.

…the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

But as Loftis noted, what the substance doesn’t mix well with is water, especially when it’s in a sealed container. One West resident explained as much to the DMN in its main story about the accident.

It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonium nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb,” said Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel in West. “I live about a thousand feet from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There’s houses leveled that were right next to it.”

As Texas Monthly‘s Erica Grieder noted, parallels to the Texas City explosion of 1947 were unavoidable–especially since, incredibly, that happened on April 16, and the West explosion on April 17. Timothy P, Murphy of Mother Jones dug up the New York Times front page from that day. 

By 1 a.m., the most famous native of nearby Abbott had also weighed in with a tweet. 

UPDATE (11:00 a.m.): The Dallas Morning News reported that President Barack Obama was alerted of the disaster early this morning. The president called Governor Rick Perry from Air Force One as he was en route to the Boston Marathon memorial service to offer federal resources to the state. The White House also released the following statement from Obama: 

Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas in the aftermath of last night’s deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant.   A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives.  I want to thank the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded.  My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue.  West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people.

Waco police sergeant William Patrick Swanton spoke to the media this morning, and said at least 160 people were injured in the blast and that the number is likely to increase. Swanton also addressed reports of looting, clarifying that there had been only one incident. The sergeant said the search and rescue mission is ongoing with firefighters and police going door to door to check on families and residents. He also pointed out that the cool rainy weather may slow things down a bit, but “potentially it can help us with environmental issues–keeping particles out of the air. It can help with the fire from different homes that were ignited during the blast as well.”

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): Governor Rick Perry addressed media Thursday afternoon, calling the West Fertilizer plant explosion “a truly nightmare scenario.” Authorities fear that at least fifteen people have died and believe more than 160 were injured, but Perry reminded media that these information about the victims is “very preliminary.”

President Barack Obama has declared McLennan County an emergency disaster area that is eligible for federal aid through FEMA. 

UPDATE (8:00 p.m.): From the Associated Press: 

Tommy Muska, the mayor of West Texas, told USA Today and the Los Angeles Times that “around 35 people, including 10 first responders,” died in the fertilizer plant explosion north of Waco on Wednesday night. Muska told the paper that five of the 10 first responders were members of the town’s volunteer fire department.

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