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Texas fertilizer plant explosion: A living 'nightmare,' governor says

April 18, 2013|By John M. Glionna and Monte Morin
  • A smashed car sits in front of an apartment complex destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Frefighters conduct search and rescue operations.
A smashed car sits in front of an apartment complex destroyed by an explosion… (LM Otero / Associated Press )

WEST, Texas -- Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday called for the prayers of all Americans as he described “a nightmare scenario” in this small town where a fertilizer plant explosion injured about 160 and killed an unknown number in a blast so powerful houses were knocked from foundations.

Earlier Thursday, officials estimated that between five and 15 people had been killed, including first responders. But Perry said he "was not comfortable" releasing the number of dead as search and rescue operations were underway. At least 75 houses, a nursing home and a middle school were damaged or destroyed.

The force propelled residents through windows, shattered glass and collapsed roofs within a half-mile radius.

In the moments after the Wednesday night explosion at West Fertilizer Co., 911 dispatchers pleaded for help for downed firefighters, summoning assistance from nearby agencies and directing fire trucks and other responders.

“Y’all have anybody available; I am requesting you. They have firefighters down,” says a woman at the start of 24 minutes of harrowing dispatch audio.

A responder calls from a senior living facility, describing it as “institutionally damaged.”

“We have many people down,” he said. “Police, please respond.”

Brett Esrock, chief executive of the Providence Healthcare Network, which includes the Providence Health Center in Waco, Texas, treated 65 patients, admitting 15.

He said many of the injured would probably be released soon. Patients were “obviously shaken up,” he said, with injuries including abrasions, lacerations, head injuries, broken bones and breathing problems.

Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area. State and local emergency workers, including the Texas National Guard, converged on the town of 2,800. Perry noted that many West residents had aided neighbors who were displaced or injured in the explosion.

“In a small town like West, they know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family,” Perry said at an Austin news conference. “It touches practically everyone in that town. So I ask all Texans and Americans to join me and Anita in keeping them in our prayers.”

The explosion roughly 20 miles north of Waco erupted as firefighters battled a blaze at the plant. The eruption registered as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and sent up a massive plume of smoke that could be seen up to 45 miles away. 

Texas emergency officials are still unsure what caused the blast, and a special response team of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been sent to the site.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said more than 200 law enforcement officers from throughout Texas were attempting to recover bodies from the debris and rescue possible survivors. McNamara, who has been sheriff for only four months, said he wouldn’t have a full count of the dead and missing until later Thursday.

“This is heartbreaking. There’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “The devastation was unbelievable.”

President Obama called Perry from Air Force One to offer his prayers, as well as any federal resources that were necessary.

“We greatly appreciate his call and his gracious offer of support,” Perry said.

West was settled, in part, by Czech immigrants and roughly three-quarters of its residents share Czech ancestry, prompting the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the U.S. to travel to the town to offer help, according to the embassy.

“Our ambassador is going there to find out what our country can do to help the community there,” said embassy spokesman Martin Pizinger, adding that the explosion dominated headlines in the Czech Republic.

West, like many towns in this part of Texas, as well as parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, saw an inflow of Czech immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, Pizinger said. 

By early Thursday, even before emergency crews arrived, residents had begun helping each other dig out from the rubble. Restaurants served meals free of charge, while residents open their doors to those who were displaced.

“We’re a tiny town,” said Mimi Montgomery Irwin, a local business owner. “Everyone is stretching themselves to the max.”

Irwin’s restaurant, Village Bakery -- a 61-year-old Czech institution in the city’s downtown -- sits half a mile from the blast’s epicenter. From her window, she’s seen a steady procession of trucks carrying plywood, glass and plumbing equipment to help repair damaged structures. Irwin’s overnight employees were baking kolaches, a Czech pastry, when the blast struck. Now they are handing them out for free -- along with everything else they serve-- to rescue crews.

Resident Cindy Horn said she felt the windows rattle and the earth shake Wednesday night, and knew people would need a place to stay. Horn drove to Latham Springs Camp and Retreat Center, where she is the director of guest services, and spent the night getting beds and rooms ready.

The sprawling, grassy campus of dorms and cabins can house 850 people. More than 12 hours later, Horn said, no one had come looking for a place to stay.

“We figure many folks are still in the hospital,” Horn said. “Everybody else is with friends and family.”

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