By Mike Lee, Michael B. Marois and David Mildenberg
DALLAS — An explosion at Adair Grain Inc.'s fertilizer facility in the town of West killed as many as 15 people and injured at least 160 in what may be the worst U.S. industrial disaster since the Texas refinery blast in 2005.
An estimated five to 15 people died following an explosion at 7:53 p.m. local time Wednesday, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said Thursday at a news conference. A fire had broken out about 25 minutes earlier at the site about 80 miles south of Dallas.
"There are homes leveled, businesses leveled; there is massive devastation in the downtown West area," Swanton said. The authorities are searching house by house and the number of casualties may rise, he said.
Adair Grain's DBA West Fertilizer Co. is an anhydrous ammonia facility, Trooper D.L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a separate conference. Anhydrous ammonia, a liquid source of the fertilizer nitrogen, is applied directly by farmers to the soil to boost crop yields.
West Fertilizer said it stored as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the site in an emergency planning report filed to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Dallas Morning News.
While the site is being treated as a crime scene, there are no indications that the fire wasn't accidental, Swanton said, adding that the blaze is now under control. At least 160 injured people are being treated at the local hospital, he said.
The worst-hit areas appeared to be a nursing home and a 50- unit apartment building near the fertilizer plant, Swanton said at an earlier briefing. Local television station KWTX showed fires in the ruins of the plant and in surrounding buildings, and people being treated on a flood-lit sports field.
Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist at the U.S Geological Survey, said a magnitude 2.1-degree seismic event had been registered as the explosion occurred. The impact would have generated a shock wave, she said by phone from Golden, Colorado.
The explosion may be the worst since a blast at BP's Texas City refinery in 2005, which killed 15 workers and injured more than 100.
The United States's worst industrial accident also occurred in Texas, in April 1947, when a fire on board the SS Grandcamp freighter in the port of Texas City detonated a cargo of ammonium nitrate. The resulting explosions and fires killed more than 570 people.
Wilson, who likened the scene at West to the Iraq war, said the 50-home apartment complex now resembled a "skeleton," while a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home had both been badly damaged. Emergency responders evacuated 133 residents, including some in wheelchairs, from the nursing home.
Elizabeth Marquez-Perea, who lives in West about a mile north of the plant, said about 50 families lived at Tucker Apartments, the damaged block close to the facility. She and her three daughters fled after the blast shattered windows of their apartment. "It smelled like gas, a real terrible smell," she said.
About a month ago, the school close to the plant had sent parents a note explaining that children had been moved for the day to a different location because of smells coming from the fertilizer plant, Marquez-Perea said.
Vicky Pustejovsky, who works in customer service for Blue Cross Blue Shield and lives two blocks from the facility, said the town was in "complete disarray."
"We were watching TV when we heard the explosion," Pustejovsky said. "Our doors started caving in."
Residents were told by authorities to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or an ammonia leak from the plant.
Jonathan Moore, a 30-year-old truck driver, felt the blast from about 35 miles to 45 miles north in the town of Itasca. He said he heard a loud boom and saw the walls shake inside the truck-stop he was in at the time.
"All of a sudden I could see the walls move both ways," Moore said in a telephone interview. As he and his friend drove closer to the explosion on Interstate 35, the smell became so strong their eyes started burning, he said.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, said on its website it deployed a "large investigation team" expected to arrive Thursday.
The blast came two days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. government's raid on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco that killed 76, including cult leader David Koresh. In revenge for that incident, exactly two years later Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb containing ammonium nitrate in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
Mildenberg reported from Austin, Texas, Marois from Sacramento, Calif. Contributors: David Wethe in Houston, Thomas Biesheuvel in London and David Stringer in Melbourne.