Many feared dead in US fertilizer plant blast

Many feared dead in US fertilizer plant blastHOUSTON: A massive blast ripped through a fertilizer plant in Texas, killing many people and injuring hundreds of others as buildings were destroyed after the factory exploded in a huge fireball.

The blast took place last night at the West Fertilizer plant in the town of West, outside Waco, with more than 130 people evacuated from a nearby nursing home, and at least 100 patients admitted to hospitals following the incident.

“It’s like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska was quoted by the CNN as saying.

Some local media reports put the death toll to about 70.

West emergency services Director Dr George Smith said earlier that as many as 60 or 70 people died in the blast, but Department of Public Safety spokesman D L. Wilson said during a news conference that the number of dead is unknown.

“We do have confirmed fatalities,” Wilson was quoted by local KWTX TV as saying.

Authorities are going door to door in the area checking on residents. The explosion, started as a structure fire and later was followed by explosion,

The blast knocked out power to a large area surrounding the plant.

Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs “your prayers.”

“We’ve got a lot of people who are hurt, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, who aren’t gonna be here tomorrow,” Muska said. “We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for. That’s the most important thing right now.”

A member of the city council, Al Vanek, said there is a four-block area around the explosion “that is totally decimated.”

Wilson said the damage was comparable to the destruction caused by the 1995 bomb blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Muska said that about six firefighters were unaccounted for and that 131 people were safely evacuated from a local nursing home, according to Waco Tribune. The cause of the explosion at the plant was not known, but it comes at a time when US is on the edge with the Boston bombings claiming three lives and injuring over 180 others.

There was also a scare in Washington over mail apparently laced with the poison ricin sent to President Barack Obama and a US senator.

Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, with even Texas Governor Rick Perry saying state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.

“We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident,” Perry said in a statement.

“We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”

Muska told reporters that 60 to 80 homes were destroyed and that the nursing home was badly damaged. “There’s going to be casualties,” he said.

One official said the area “looked like Iraq.”

Fire had been controlled, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant’s ruins.

State troopers in gas masks had set up roadblocks, waving away cars coming off the highway. The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.

The residents were being evacuated because officials were worried that another tank at the facility might explode.

“What we are hearing is that there is one fertilizer tank that is still intact at the plant, and there are evacuations in place to make sure everyone gets away from the area safely in case of another explosion,” said Ben Stratmann, a spokesman for Texas State Senetor Brian Birdwell.

Firefighters at the scene said they were concerned about anhydrous ammonia, a pungent gas with suffocating fumes that is used as a fertilizer.

When exposed to humans, it can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. And exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.

Shortly after the explosion, more than 60 patients were admitted to Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, suffering from “blast injuries, orthopedic injuries (and) a lot of lacerations,” said hospital CEO Glenn Robinson. While some of the injuries are minor, others are “quite serious,” Robinson said.

The fiery explosion sent flames shooting into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following the blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction.

The West Fertilizer Plant is located about 32 kilometers north of Waco. A photo taken after the explosion, which reportedly happened around 7:50 pm (local time), showed a huge plume of smoke rising high into the air.

Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some on wheelchairs.

Aerial footage showed fires still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings, and people being treated for injuries on a flood-lit local football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.

“It’s total chaos,” West City Councilwoman Cheryl Marak said, according to local news Radio. “There’s ambulances and fire trucks and police cars from everywhere.”

At least 124 people have been hospitalized, with one hospital saying that 20 more are on the way. Of those, 38 were in a serious condition. -PTI

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