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Dozens feared dead after Texas fertiliser plant explosion

18 April 2013

A massive explosion at a fertiliser plant in a small Texas town late on April 17 has killed an unspecified number and injured more than 100 people, levelling homes and spewing toxic fumes that forced evacuations of half the community, authorities said. Reports said the shock wave could be felt 50 miles away.

Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the Waco, Texas, police department said in a press conference on the morning of April 18 that up to 15 people were missing after the explosion, including up to four volunteer firefighters. Rescuers are still in "search and rescue" mode," he said.

"That's good news to me, meaning that they're probably still getting injured people," Swanton said.

Earlier, Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson told a news conference that there were confirmed fatalities about four hours after the explosion. "The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We're in there searching the area right now and making sure that it's safe."

The explosion took place after a fire at the West Fertiliser Co. plant, near Waco, Texas. Officials said flames that continued to smoulder inside the plant posed two threats - the possibility of setting off an explosion of a second fertiliser tank and the emission of hazardous fumes into the surrounding community.

Shortly after the explosion, more than 60 patients streamed into Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, suffering from "blast injuries, orthopedic injuries (and) a lot of lacerations," said hospital CEO Glenn Robinson, who added that some injuries were quite serious. CNN said 156 victims had been admitted to three area hospitals following the explosion.

Wilson said about half the town, which has a population of 2,700, had been evacuated and that the other side of town would be evacuated if winds shifted.

West Mayor Tommy Muska told Reuters that five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first on the scene in the blast zone were unaccounted for. CNN reported that at least two people had been killed, but that figure could not be independently confirmed.

Wilson said 50 to 75 homes were damaged by the explosion and a fire that followed, and that 133 people had been evacuated from a damaged nursing home. 

Dallas television station WFAA reported from helicopters that a roughly three-block area of West appeared to have been flattened.

There was no immediate official word on what sparked the explosion. The blast produced ground motion equivalent to that of a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the US Geological Survey.

Some firefighters at the scene were concerned about anhydrous ammonia, according to CNN. This is a pungent gas with suffocating fumes that is used as a fertiliser and, when exposed to humans, can cause serious problems. The company had some 54,000lbs (20 tonnes) of anhydrous ammonia on site.

Earlier, a senior doctor said he had been told told by firefighters that up to 70 people had been killed and hundreds injured in the blast. Prompted on this by reporters, who noted that officials were using an "abundance" of caution in giving figures, a police sergeant said: "I cannot confirm that at all, I don't know who that doctor was, I have not heard that number."

"I heard that there was a helicopter on the scene that sustained some damage ... we are trying to confirm that, " he said.

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