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West, Texas, explosion: Toxic cloud could be spread by strong winds

April 17, 2013|By Robert J. Lopez and Matt Pearce
  • A firefighter walks past a pickup truck under a pile of debris at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, after an explosion Wednesday.
A firefighter walks past a pickup truck under a pile of debris at a fertilizer… (Michael Ainsworth / Dallas…)

Authorities dealing with a huge explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, were preparing for a possible shift in the winds that could push toxic clouds toward areas not yet affected by the disaster, officials said early Thursday.

At least three people were reportedly killed, dozens of others were injured and about six firefighters were missing after the massive blast and huge fireball tore through the West Fertilizer facility in West, about 20 miles north of Waco. 

A huge plume  of smoke -- laden with toxic anhydrous ammonia --  was visible for miles and was being pushed by winds blowing from the south, officials said.

PHOTOS: Fertilizer plant explosion

But a cold front was expected to the hit the area early Friday and create powerful winds out of the north. That could spread the cloud of smoke to other areas, according to law enforcement authorities at the scene.

"We're pre-planning for that and trying to make sure we get as many out of harm's way as we can," Waco Police Department Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton told CNN.

He said that as many as 70 homes, as well as a nursing home and a 50-unit apartment building, sustained "heavy damage."

 "Obviously, something of this magnitude has many people injured," he said.

About 2,700 people live in West, officials said.

Don Yeager, an assistant fire chief in Waco, said his agency sent several firefighters to help their “neighbors down the road.”

“It looks like the worst-case scenario happened here today,” Yeager said. “It’s a tragedy, and that little old town is going to be changed forever.”

About 60 people were treated for injuries including lacerations, respiratory distress and broken bones at Providence Medical Center in Waco, said spokesman Keith Hopkins. He said medical officials were concerned that the victims were exposed to toxic materials.

"We have to be very careful in terms of decontaminating these patients," Hopkins said in an interview with CNN.

Rescue officials said the exact number of dead and injured was unknown and that firefighters had yet to enter the fertilizer plant, where flames were still smoldering late Wednesday.

Wendy Gragg, 37, rushed from Waco about an hour after the blast and arrived at a community center, where power had been knocked out.

 “It was just a melee,” Gragg said. Emergency personnel were using ambulances to evacuate senior citizens from the city, and residents were bringing blankets and pillows to keep survivors warm.

PHOTOS: Fertilizer plant explosion

"People rushing everywhere, to do whatever they could do,” Gragg said. “Sometimes when things happen, people might stand around and videotape things, but people aren’t doing that. They’re like, ‘How can I help? Can I pass out water?’ It’s impressive.”

 David Holley-Gates, 16, who was in Burleson, outside Dallas, at the time of the explosion but has friends in West, was begging for supplies over social media so he could rush them to the scene.

“Socks, blankets, anything would be nice to have,” he said. “I just need anything possible to take down there to help these families out.”

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Twitter: @LAJourno

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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