Death Toll Still Unknown in Texas Explosion: Estimating Between 5 and 15 Killed, 160 Injured — Yet Prepared for ‘Dozens’ of Deaths

Firefighters use flashlights to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early Thursday morning, April 18, 2013. Credit: AP

An indication of the daunting challenge facing rescue workers, officials who held an early morning news conference indicated they still don’t know how many people were killed in Wednesday’s explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

At an overnight press conference, the officials said between five and 15 may have been killed, and that some are still missing. They also emphasized they attribute the explosion to an industrial accident.

The Dallas Morning News reports, however, that emergency personnel are preparing for the possibility of “dozens of dead”:

Emergency personnel were bracing for the possibility of dozens of dead in the blast, which was reported at 7:53 p.m. and could be heard 45 miles away in Waxahachie.

Although authorities confirmed that at least five to 15 people had died, shortly before 5 a.m. they were still saying they did not have an official total. They have said they expect to find more bodies as they continue to search the area.

West’s EMS director, Dr. George Smith, confirmed after 4 a.m. that two emergency personnel had been killed in the explosion, which occurred at West Fertilizer Co., just off Interstate 35, about 80 miles south of Dallas.

Smith said he could not yet confirm whether three to five firefighters and one police officer who have been reported as missing had died.

Officials said more than 160 people had been treated for injuries at various hospitals, but that number could continue to climb as emergency personnel search for survivors at 5 a.m.

A blaze had broken out earlier at the plant, and the explosion occurred while firefighters were trying to put it out.

The Associated Press quoted witnesses who compared the scene to “a war zone” with the factory “a smoldering ruin” and homes and businesses “leveled” for blocks in each direction in West, a suburb 20 miles north of Waco. It reports:

“They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes,” Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning. He added later, “At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue.”

Swanton said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

Among those believe to be dead: Members of a group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early Thursday morning.

The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was “totally decimated.” The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to “a skeleton,” a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.[…]

Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, they put the number of those injured at more than 160 early Thursday. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs “your prayers.”

“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.”

Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel in West, told the Dallas paper: “It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonium nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb. 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.”