At approximately 7:50 pm on April 17, a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in the small town of West, Texas, left an estimated five to 15 people dead, injured at least 160 others, and destroyed many buildings in the surrounding vicinity. A 50-unit apartment complex near the plant was reduced to reduced to "a skeleton," a state police officer was quoted by AP.
In a process reminiscent of rescue workers combing through the rubble after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, rescue workers could not immediately tell if they were engaged in a search-and-rescue or body recovery operation.
"They have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said of the rescuers.
Because of the small size of the West Police and Fire Departments, many public statements were issued by members of the Waco Police Department. West, with a population of about 2,800 people, is located about 18 miles north of Waco. Members of the Dallas Fire-Rescue team, coming 70 miles from the north, were also seen taking part in the rescue effort.
"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," said West Mayor Tommy Muska. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."
Dallas Radio WBAP interviewed D.L. Wilson with the Texas Department of Public Safety, who described what he saw when he arrived on scene: "Massive [damage]. Just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The same kind of chemical exploded. You can imagine what kind of damage we're looking at.”
Members of West’s volunteer fire department responded to a call reporting a fire at the plant at 7:29 p.m., Swanton told reporters. Because the plant houses a very large chemical stockpile, "they realized the seriousness of what they had," he said.
Mayor Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said that he and his fellow emergency workers were in the process of evacuating the area around the plant when the blast followed about 20 minutes later.
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Photo of remains of West Fertilizer Co. smoldering in West, Texas: AP Images