WEST, Texas — The mayor of this city said 35 to 40 people are believed to be dead in a massive fertilizer plant explosion “because they are unaccounted for and still missing.”
“We are out there searching the rubble, looking in each and every house. We are trying to locate each and every citizen,” Mayor Tommy Muska said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Muska said he arrived at the count of 35 to 40 dead because all other residents and first-responders in the area have been identified. Among those who were missing and believed dead, he said, were as many as six firefighters and four emergency medical technicians.
The explosion occurred Wednesday night, damaging or destroying buildings within a half-mile radius.
State public safety officials declined to say how many have died in the accident, and confirmed only that there were fatalities.
Rescue workers and federal investigators continued to face a “volatile situation” at the site, they said.
“The area where the incident occurred is highly populated, it is a neighborhood, it is devastated, it is still a very volatile situation,” said Matt Cawthon, chief deputy of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are attempting to determine the cause of the explosion, which occurred around 8 p.m. Wednesday as firefighters battled a blaze at the site.
Cawthon said that the presence of the explosive substance ammonium nitrate increased the danger. “It is a fertilizer company and, as it is, it has that type of component in it. It is a volatile product.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he would be doing a flyover to survey the damage, and also warned against price gouging.
Many of those injured in the explosion were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, about 20 miles south. On Thursday afternoon, the Texas flag there flew at half staff.
Glenn Robinson, the hospital’s chief executive, said that the center was still treating 28 patients, five of them in critical condition in intensive care.
Many of the patients, hospital staff and first responders are friends and neighbors. When word went out late Wednesday of the explosion, 285 hospital employees poured into the Waco facility.
“Over the last 19 hours, their efforts have truly been heroic,” Robinson said.
Dr. Danny Owens, head of the trauma team, said no training could have prepared his staff for what they encountered Wednesday night.
“We talk about this, we train for it, we think about it. But you never know if you’re ready until it happens,” Owens said.
Owens classified most of the injured as suffering from what he termed “blast wounds.” He described those injuries as soft tissue and skin lacerations, large and small wounds, and abdominal injuries. He said many of the injuries were compounded by blowing debris which lodged in patients’ eyes. The power of the blast also perforated eardrums.
Owens said has not seen any injuries that might have been characterized as chemical burns.
The wounded began appearing at the facility within minutes of the blast, many brought by ambulance, others in personal vehicles.
As rescuers searched the blast rubble for more survivors, Owens worried that a cold spell expected to hit the area Thursday night could worsen the conditions of any victims trapped beneath debris.
Owens said he recognized several of the EMTs and firefighters who were brought to the hospital.
“Last night was controlled chaos. Now all the patients are in rooms. Our doctors are going over them for missed injuries or those that have worsened,” Owens said.
Melissa James, a social worker who has been at the hospital for 15 years, rushed to work as soon as she heard about the disaster.
Three of her family members were seeking treatment – her stepmother, nephew and grandfather who lived in a nursing facility that was severely damaged in the blast.
“It’s certainly difficult coming into work, knowing that I’m going to have to see my own family as patients in this hospital,” she said.
Her stepbrother and nephew were driving near the factory when the blast blew out the windows in their pickup truck. James said that all of her family members are in good condition, even though their house has been destroyed.
“They were just so grateful to be alive and still be here,” James said. “We didn’t lose any of our family members and that’s just so good.”