STERLINGTON, La. — Emergency crews found more bodies Thursday amid the wreckage left by a thunderous explosion at a chemical plant, bringing the death toll to eight, authorities said.
Firefighters pumped water on the rubble, extinguishing small fires that lingered after the Wednesday blast, and state environmental officials checked air quality.
Area hospitals treated 123 people for injuries, including plant workers and nearby residents. Six were reported in critical condition.
Roughly 500 to 600 of the town's estimated 1,200 residents were evacuated immediately after the blasts but were allowed to return home Thursday night.
Highways on both sides of the town began backing up with traffic as the state Department of Environmental Quality reported no serious contamination, Police Chief Walter Kemper said.
Returning residents found buildings with windows blasted out and ceilings caved in, siding ripped from houses, dozens of burned-out vehicles and chunks of twisted metal littering the streets. The explosion site was a mass of twisted metal tanks and pipes.
Mayor James H. Rainwater said he worried about the economic harm the blast did to the town.
"This has really hurt our business district," he said. "We don't have a large business district, but we were really hit bad."
One merchant, Ray Lowery, said town retailers relied heavily on commerce from the plant. He said Sterlington sits in what once was a natural gas field. But the gas ran out about eight years ago and the plant is now the heart of the town's economy.
The blast damaged a complex of equipment used to manufacture nitroparaffin, a base chemical for paints, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. About 450 people worked in that unit of the plant.
The unit is owned by Angus Chemical of Northbrook, Ill., but was operated and manned by IMC Fertilizer, which owns two ammonia fertilizer plants at the site. The ammonia plants apparently were not damaged, but IMC Fertilizer officials said they were shutting them down for inspection.
Plant operations manager Bill Patterson said workers were checking out a problem with a compressor Wednesday when they noticed a small fire and sounded an alarm.
"About 30 seconds later there was the explosion," he said.
People eight miles away heard the first blast, which was followed by a series of smaller explosions.