Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

West, Texas: 14 Confirmed Fatalities, 200 Injured, Search and Rescue Complete

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

Residents of the town of West, Texas, hold a candlelight vigil Thursday evening for those killed and injured in an explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant in the town.

Reported by the KUT News Staff with Terrence Henry:

Read the new story: After West Fertilizer Explosion, Concerns Over Safety, Regulation and Zoning

Update: As of 3 pm Saturday, some residents of West, the site of a major explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, will be allowed back into their homes in part of the severely damaged neighborhood in the North section of town. Residents 18 and over living in the area from Walnut street southward will be allowed to enter until 7 pm. From 7 pm to 7 am, the city will have a curfew, and residents will need to either stay in their homes or leave the neighborhood. North of that area, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek said at a press conference this afternoon, the city will work “as quickly as possible”to allow people back to their homes. More information for residents is available at the City of West’s website.

Some press reports earlier today said that there were still small fires at the site of the fertilizer plant. Vanek said that “Everything is safe. It’s good. We’re trying to get our people back in.”

“Safe, safe, safe,” Vanek repeated.

The number of fatalities remains 14, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Previous reports, after the jump:

Update, Friday 5:45 pm: Search and rescue operations are over in West, Texas, according to Gov. Rick Perry. “Except for one house that burnt down, the search and rescue phase is now complete,” Gov. Perry said at a press conference in West this afternoon.

Promising state fire support, Perry said “this volunteer fire department was basically wiped out here.”

Asked if the fertilizer plant explosion could mean tighter oversight of similar operations – especially plants close to residential areas – Perry said “If there’s a better way to do this, we wanna know about it. … We wanna be open and have that discussion, whatever that might be.” Perry pointed to the current legislative session as one potential way to scrutinize fertilizer plant operations.

Perry added that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had installed multiple air monitors in West. “If there were dangerous chemicals that were inside of that plant,” Perry said, “those monitors would’ve picked them up.”

McClennan County Judge Scott Felton added that the number of people unaccounted for, reported earlier today as 60, is that high out of an abundance of caution, and that the actual number may be as low as zero.

Update, 4:30 pm Friday: In the devastated town of West, a Texas DPS official says two more bodies have been recovered from the area of this week’s fertilizer plant explosion. That brings the official number of dead to 14.

Gov. Rick Perry has a briefing scheduled in West at 5 p.m.

UPDATE 12:30pm: As many as 60 people may still be unaccounted for following the explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas Wednesday night. 12 people are known dead and more than 200 were wounded in the blast.

At a noontime press conference, U.S. Senator John Cornyn said authorities are still doing search and rescue operations to try to account for some of the missing.

Cornyn, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Roger Williams got a first-hand look at the explosion site earlier today. After the seeing the damage, Cruz said of the people of West “your heart weeps for their suffering.”

Williams said he expects the town will rebuild.

Earlier reports, after the jump:

Cornyn says there will likely be a review of regulations for storing chemicals like ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia – the two materials that may have played a role in the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company.

However, Cornyn said they should wait for more information about the explosion before acting.

Update, Friday 8:30 am: In a press conference this morning, Jason Reyes, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, released updated information on the explosion. There have been 12 bodies recovered, Reyes said, with 200 injured. Reyes said that 50 homes have been destroyed, and that search and rescue operations continue this morning. There are still 25 homes to be cleared, with 150 buildings already cleared. No rescues have been reported during the search and rescue operation thus far. Reyes spoke only for a few minutes and didn’t take many questions. The area of most damage is still being treated as a crime scene and remains closed to the public.

Several reports have looked into how state and federal regulators may have overlooked dangers at the fertilizer plant. At a press conference Thursday, McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff said that ammonium nitrate present at the plant, which can be explosive in certain conditions, was making search and rescue efforts difficult and a “volatile situation.”

As we reported yesterday, the plant had gone without a permit for two years and had been the subject of one complaint to the state environmental regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The complaint said that the “ammonia smell [was] very bad last night from Fertilizer Plant,” and that the smell “lingered until after they went to bed.” Residents echoed those complaints in interviews with StateImpact Texas and KUT News in West Thursday.

Locals also said the plant had been a nuisance recently by burning wood pallets outside the facility. In February, the West Intermediate School, adjacent to the plant, was temporarily evacuated during a burn outside the facility.

“They’ve been starting fires over there, trying to burn [the wood pallets] up to dispose of them,” longtime resident Darryl Garrick told StateImpact Texas. Garrick says the explosion knocked him four feet in the air of his couch. He lives about a mile away from the plant.

Credit facebook.com/TexasAttorneyGeneral

The apartment building where Darryl Garricks' grandchildren were when the blast hit. The children are OK.

Garrick’s grandchildren were in a 50-unit apartment building next to the facility at the time of the explosion. Their babysitter became trapped under a collapsed roof, leaving the boys stranded. “The four-year old pulled the two-year old out,” he said. “And then he had them on the stairs and the stairs collapsed. And that’s where we got him.”

Both survived and are okay, Garrick says, but have cuts and bruises.
In the Dallas Morning News, Randy Lee Loftis writes that “…either West Fertilizer or its sister company, Adair Grain, stored and sold ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in the truck bomb that Timothy McVeigh detonated outside Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building 18 years ago Friday.”

Loftis continues:

“Agents probing the wreckage in West are far from concluding how a small fire turned into a deadly blast and obliterated part of a small Central Texas town. It is even uncertain which chemical fueled the explosion.

But this much is clear: The explosion came after years in which state and federal agencies overlooked the potential for what some say was a preventable catastrophe.”

The Waco Tribune, which has been an important source of local coverage for the West story, also looked into the plant’s past and found “the plant at the end of 2012 … had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a dry solid that’s much better-known for its explosive properties” in addition to the anhydrous ammonia already known to be there. The Tribune also reports that the Office of the State Chemist, which inspects fertilizer facilities, “inspected West Fertilizer 12 times last year and found two violations regarding nutrient ratios in blended fertilizer, but .. would not discuss any safety issues that may have been found at the plant.”

The Associated Press reports that the plant was fined last year for safety violations by federal regulators. The plant didn’t have the required sprinkler system or material labeling, the AP reports.

You can read more about the dangers of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia in this KUT News explainer.

Update, Thursday pm: Residents of West, the town in Central Texas, have begun the healing process after an explosion at a fertilizer plant injured more than 160 residents and killed an unknown number of residents. People already started cleaning and doing the aftermath of the damage caused by the explosion of a fertilizer plant on Wednesday evening.

The area surrounding the fertilize plant is still closed as the search and rescue recovery takes place. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

KUT News was at the scene after the explosion in West, Texas.

Update: The Associated Press reports that an off-duty Dallas fire captain was killed fighting the blaze in West, Texas.

West resident and Dallas Fire Rescue Captain Kenny Harris was assisting the West volunteer fire department last night when he died, according to the AP.

A candlelight vigil for West is scheduled for 8 p.m. at St. Mary’s Church in West. Grief counseling is also available at the West Library from now until Sunday

Update: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott voiced his support for the victims of the West fertilizer plant explosion this afternoon, praising the efforts of first responders and pledging state resources to victims.

“The support we got in responding to this challenge is as big as Texas itself,” Abbott said.

Chief McLennan County Deputy Matt Cawthon and Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes joined the Attorney General, but could not answer in specific terms the number of civilian fatalities. They could not confirm the previously reported number of missing three to five first responders either.

Cawthon said that the sheriff’s office is working closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office to investigate the blast.

Cawthon said that ammonium nitrate could still remain in the highly populated neighborhood and could not confirm if the hazardous chemical had “burned up” or if remnants remained in the area.

Abbott pledged that the state will help the make the community whole again, starting by vowing to prosecute “price gougers” to the fullest extent of the law.

Update (2:49 p.m.): KUT’s Terrence Henry says that electricity in the center of town has now been restored, and that the emergency room was relatively quiet.

First aid stations are still serving residents affected by the blast, and authorities still have the most affected areas cordoned off.

Darryl Garrick lives near the site of the blast. He told KUT News that nearby residents had been complaining about some at the plant burning shipping pallets over the past few weeks.

Garrick said lifted his house off the ground. Garrick drove to a nearby apartment where his grandchildren were being watched by a babysitter when he heard the blast.

“We jumped in the truck and went over there and were looking and realized that the apartment complex that took all of the damage mostly,” Garrick said.

Garrick said his grandchildren had been trapped in the apartment after the roof collapsed. He said they escaped with cuts and bruises, but that the babysitter was trapped.

Deborah Waters lives next to the center of the lives near the plant and said that the blast was “jarring.”

“You actually hear it after you feel it,” Waters said. “It’s like your whole body shakes.”

Waters said that she and other neighbors had never had problems with the plant before the explosion and that most of her neighbors had gotten away from the plant before the explosion. Following yesterday’s blast, she said, those in her neighborhood helped carry injured neighbors to safety in pick-up trucks.

“The whole community has come together. It’s amazing.” Waters said. “There were so many people there on-site as soon as it happened.”

Authorities urge those in the area to call the emergency hotline at (254) 202-1100 for information on missing persons.

Update (12:14 p.m.): The Insurance Council of Texas says that some adjusters in the area are already on site and that as many as 75 homes sustained extensive damage in the blast that killed up to 15 and left over 100 injured.

“The industry stands ready to assist and help in the rebuilding process as soon as possible,” said spokesman Mark Hanna in a statement.

The Property and Casualty Insurers Association of America said late this morning that it is still too early to know the insurance costs of the damage in West.

Update (12:27 p.m.):Texas Task Force 1 – a Texas-based FEMA search and rescue task force – is on its way to West. The 80-member “Red” team deployed to West early this morning includes canine search and heavy rescue equipment. You can learn more about the team here.

Texas National Guardsmen are also supporting first responders in West. The 6th Civil Support Team was deployed to help with search and rescue efforts. More Guardsmen have been placed on alert and Gov. Perry said in a press conference that an emergency declaration for the affected area is forthcoming.

Update (11:08 a.m.): In contrast to reports of looting in the area, there’s only record of one isolated looting case, solved last night,” said Waco Police Sgt. Swanton. “The neighborhood is a safe area.”

According to Waco Police, the destruction from the fertilizer plant ranges from broken windows to total devastation. “Their homes are not homes anymore,” Swanton said.

“I’m not gonna forget this for a long, long time,” says West resident Julie Zahirniak.

Zahirniak lives right behind the nursing home near the plant. Zahirniak’s son, Anthony, suffered several rib fractures due to the impact of the explosion.

The number of fatalities still ranges from five to 15 deceased, with more than 160 injured.

It’s still unknown whether residents are trapped under remnants of the buildings and how many people were helped by the rescue teams. And at this point, the fertilizer plant is treated as a crime scene. Waco PD says “it’s too early in the investigation to confirm it.”

Update (10:17 am): Out of over a hundred explosion victims admitted to the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center last night, five victims are in intensive care, according to a hospital statement.

Two children patients were transferred to a children hospital in Temple, Texas; 12 elderly patients, reportedly nursing home residents from West, Texas, were discharged and sent to other nursing home facilities.

More than 50 patients were released from the hospital’s emergency department overnight.

Central United Methodist Church, located a mile away from the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, is turning its gym into an emergency shelter.

“There may not be a real need for people to spend the night here but you have to be prepared … just in case,” Pastor Brad Pittain said.

Carter Blood Care Center in Waco, along with various local business, are accepting donations throughout the day.

In Austin, the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas says people who want to donate blood should call to make an appointment – their number is 512-206-1264. They are prioritizing people with “O negative” blood – the universal blood donor.

President Obama issued a statement on the explosion in West:

Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas in the aftermath of last night’s deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant. A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives. I want to thank the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded. My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue. West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people.

Update (9:02 a.m.): At a press conference this morning, Waco Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said that part of “the community around the fertilizer plant is gone.” Nearly 75 homes plus businesses are damaged. So is a 50-home apartment complex.

Swanton said there is no “chemical escape out of control,” and despite the weather “the rain has no significant issue on search or rescue.”

An emergency hotline (254-202-1100 ) opened at 9 a.m. with more information on missing persons.

Gov. Rick Perry is scheduled to hold a press conference at DPS headquarters in Austin at 11:45 a.m.

Update (8:45 a.m.): CBS DFW has compiled a list of resources and contacts for West residents and those looking to help. This Reddit News thread contains links to additional resources.

So how big was last night’s blast?

The explosion in West measured a 2.1 magnitude, according to the U.S. Geological Survey department. USGS adds that “the magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event.”

Update (7:36 a.m.): Emergency responders and volunteers from Austin are in the town of West, Texas this morning to help in the emergency response to the explosion at a fertilizer plant. Austin-Travis County EMS has sent two commanders to the town. Texas Red Cross volunteers from Austin and Waco are also there.

The National Weather Service says thunderstorms in the area are expected to affect West until about 9 a.m.

Update (6:07 a.m.): Waco Police say there are an estimated five to 15 fatalities and more than 160 injuries from the explosion at a fertilizer plan in West, Texas. Some firefighters and emergency personnel are still missing. According to West Mayor Tommy Muska, 50 to 60 homes were destroyed by the explosion.

“Once were able to assess a little more we will either see the casualty rate rise or the injury rate rise. We would like to say we hope not. We’re going to hope for the best and prepare for whatever we come across,” Sergeant William Patrick Swanton said.

Swanton said the explosion is being treated as a crime investigation even though any indication of a crime has not been found.

Search and rescue operations remain active as first responders go door-to-door in downtown West area. The police said there is no immediate safety threat from smoke.

Original Story (4:04 a.m.): The number of people killed in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco Texas still remains unknown. Law enforcement continues to search damaged homes and apartments for survivors.

Waco Police Sergeant William Patrick Swanton spoke for the City of West early Thursday morning. “There was quite a bit of devastation,” Swanton said of the blast radius surrounding the fertilizer plant. According to the Waco Police Department, homes are still being evacuated and there are firefighters still unaccounted for.

The explosion was caused by a fire at the plant yesterday evening. It occurred as firefighters were evacuating people from their homes—including some elderly residents at a nursing home. The blast gutted homes, along with a 50-unit apartment complex. The plant’s blast registered a 2.1 magnitude event, according to the U.S. Geological Service, and was felt 15 miles away are heard as far as Waxahatchie (45 miles away).

Agencies from across the state have joined the Waco Police Department in rescue and assessment of the damage. The weather remains a large concern, as the high winds are anticipated to switch from the south to the north around 7 in the morning, according to Swanton. In addition to police, fire, and Hazmat command units, Swanton says crews are working with local meteorologists to assess the weather conditions and predict what new areas may be affected.

The West, Texas explosion occurred just a day after the 66th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in Texas history. On the morning of April 16, 1947, the ship SS Grandcamp exploded at the docks in Texas City, killing over 500 people. The French-owned vessel was carrying ammonium nitrate, a primary component of fertilizer.

The cause of the fire remains unknown. Swanton says it is still too early for an investigation, but that the fire is now under control and a second explosion is unlikely.

For more, see KUT News’ original post.



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