West Explosion Claims 14 Lives; 9 Were First Responders

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WEST (April 19, 2013)—Two more bodies have been found in the wake of the massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, increasing the death toll to 14, Department of Public Safety spokesman Sgt. Jason Reyes said late Friday afternoon.

This sign greeted those who were heading into West Friday. (Photo by Rachel Cox)

Five of the dead were West volunteer firefighters and four were firefighters from other departments including two from Abbott, West police Chief James Lawhorn said during a late-afternoon news conference.

Five other members of West's 29-member fire department were injured, Lawhorn said.

One of the volunteers was West's city secretary, Joey Pustejovsky, West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

About 60 people were unaccounted for after the explosion, but McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said late Friday afternoon that most if not all of them have or will be located.

"I think we're going to eliminate 99 percent (of those on the list), Felton said.

“I would be surprised if it’s more than a few people (who are missing),” Felton said.

Earlier Friday Reyes confirmed that 12 bodies were recovered from the area around the West Fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West.

Reyes said all of the remains were taken to the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, in Dallas, for positive identification.

Reyes said Friday that he can't say how man first responders died Wednesday night in West, but he said the 12 bodies were all found "in the area of the plant."

Only one fallen firefighter has been identified publicly.

A note sent Thursday to members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro identified one of the victims as a Dallas firefighter who joined West firefighters at the scene of the blaze Wednesday night.

Later Thursday, Dallas Fire-Rescue identified the firefighter as Capt. Kenny Harris, 52, who lived in West.

He wasn't on duty Wednesday night when he decided to lend a hand to volunteer firefighters battling the fire.

Harris was a married father of three grown sons.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue chaplain and other members of department were in West Thursday to help comfort his family.

In the town of 2,700, however, word of who died was spreading Friday.

A woman who lived in the apartment complex leveled by the blast says she learned that two volunteer firefighters she knew were dead, one of whom was the best man at her nephew's wedding.

The explosion also left more than 200 injured.

Most of the injured victims were treated and then released, but some remain hospitalized Friday.

Three patients, two of whom are in critical condition, remain at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple and two children, one of whom is in critical condition are at McLane Children’s Hospital.

Seventeen patients remain at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, five of whom are in intensive care.

Others were taken to Providence Health Center in Waco, where 10 remained Friday, and Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where two remained.

Reyes said three fire trucks and one ambulance were destroyed in the blast, which also destroyed 50 homes, the 50-unit apartment building and heavily damaged West Intermediate School.

He said 150 buildings have been cleared in the search effort and searchers are expected to clear the remaining 24 Friday.

He described the continuing effort as search and rescue.

Investigators still are handling the area as a crime scene, Reyes said.

Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said ATF investigators will begin Friday at the perimeter of the blast and work inward toward the destroyed West Fertilizer Co.

The ATF is scouring the site along with the state fire marshal's office.

As investigators move inward in examining debris and damage, residents gradually will be allowed to return Friday to homes along streets that have already been examined.

A dozen investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were also inspecting the site Friday.

A spokeswoman for the federal agency that's charged with investigating chemical accidents said the group arrived and was "inspecting the areas of impact" midday Friday.

The group, which includes fire experts as well as people trained in explosive modeling, is working to figure out what caused Wednesday's deadly fire and explosion.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry toured the area Friday and thanked those who responded to the disaster.

“Whether they worked triage the night of the explosion, pulled extra shifts at area hospitals, or just took one of their displaced neighbors into their home they are the heart and soul of the Texas tradition of “neighbor helping neighbor,” Perry said.

“No doubt, there is a lot of work that lies ahead and the road to recovery is long. But this community will come together, this community will mourn and this community will rebuild,” he said.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Weatherford were in West earlier Friday afternoon to offer support to residents.

Before meeting with reporters at noon, the three lawmakers visited with residents and toured the blast site.

Cornyn said they viewed the tangled wreckage of one of the fire trucks destroyed in the explosion.

“In this close community, I grieve with the injured, and the family and friends who have lost loved ones," Cornyn said.

"After seeing the site first-hand, I know the road to recovery will be long, but I am encouraged by the many examples I have already seen of this town’s resilience," he said.

"Your heart weeps for their suffering," Cruz said.

Hundreds of residents gathered Thursday night for a non-denominational church service honoring the victims of West’s deadly and destructive fertilizer plant explosion.

The residents filled the pews at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in downtown West where hundreds of white candles were passed out for a candlelight tribute.

A victim relief services chaplain said the prayers and hymns honored the first responders who rushed toward the danger of the plant fire that led to the explosion and those who were simply too close to the site when the blast erupted.

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Earlier Coverage

West Mayor Tommy Muska said Thursday searchers have found no survivors in the rubble of the dozens of homes and buildings damaged or destroyed by a powerful fertilizer plant explosion, but he told CNN, "We're still holding out some hope."

"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," he said.

Muska told CNN that seven West firefighters died in the blast Wednesday night along with two others, but provided no further details.

McLennan County Justices of the Peace Pete Peterson and Kristi DeCluitt spent the day in West making death pronouncements, but it's still not clear how many lives the blast claimed.

Earlier authorities said the death toll could be as high as 15.

Urban search teams from Texas Task Forces 1 and 2 were in West Thursday, conducting a house-by-house search for the living and dead and by Thursday night they had cleared 80 percent of the damaged houses and three-fourths of a badly damaged 50-unit apartment complex near the blast site, Kelly Kistner of the State Fire Marshal's Office said Thursday night.

The teams will complete the search on Friday, Kistner said.

Over the next two days crews will work to shrink the evacuation perimeter, he said, and residents on the fringes of the blast zone whose residences suffered little damage should then be allowed to return home, he said.

The blast site was cleared as of 6 p.m. Thursday, Kistner said, erasing lingering concerns about a toxic leak or another explosion.

An air quality assessment will be conducted Friday, he said.

Responders are doing a "hard, gut-wrenching job," Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said earlier Thursday.

He said utility workers were accompanying search crews and described them as heroes for facing the same risks as emergency personnel.

In some cases, crews had to reinforce damaged buildings before they could enter to search, authorities said.

No information about fatalities was released during the news conference Thursday night or during a late-afternoon news conference that included Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who vowed to go after price gougers.

McLennan County Chief Deputy Matt Cawthon told reporters the affected area is a "highly populated neighborhood."

The number of injured rose to more than 200 Thursday.

About 100 patients were treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.

Twenty-eight were admitted and five were in ICU Thursday afternoon.

Twelve elderly nursing home residents were treated and then discharged to other care facilities.

The others were treated and later released.

None of the patients at Hillcrest suffered burns or chemical injuries, the hospital said.

Sixty-eight patients were treated at Providence Health Center and 15 were admitted.

"The victims' injuries were consistent with those associated with an explosion; minor burns, broken bones, lacerations, abrasions, head injuries and respiratory distress," the hospital said in a press release.

Scott & White received five patients, three at Scott & White Memorial Hospital, two of whom were in critical condition and two at McLane Children's Hospital, one of whom was in critical condition.

"The people of our community and Central Texas have once again demonstrated our ability to face unexpected challenges and to respond with resilience and strength. We are proud to serve in such a community, and our thoughts and prayers remain with the people of West," said Glenn A. Robinson, chief executive officer of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center Scott & White Healthcare in Waco.

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Another 42 patients were treated at Hill Regional Hospital in Hillsboro, three of whom were later transferred to Dallas.

The rest were released after treatment, the hospital said Thursday.

Nine victims were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and two remained there Thursday.

Lines formed early Thursday at the Carter BloodCare Center in Waco, where residents waited in the early-morning rain to donate blood for injured survivors.

As of noon, close to 300 people had donated at the center in Waco and many more were still waiting to give.

Extra teams were brought in to facilitate donations, the blood center said.

Gov. Rick Perry met Thursday in Austin with state officials to discuss the response to the explosion.

"We are blessed in Texas to have the best emergency response teams in the nation, and they were certainly at their best last night, quickly and efficiently taking control of the situation, tending to the wounded and helping keep a bad situation from getting worse," Perry said.

"Anyone who grew up in a small town understands that this tragedy will touch every family in West and the surrounding communities in some way. I urge all Texans and Americans to join me in keeping the people of West and our first responders in your prayers as this situation continues to unfold."

The scene of the explosion will be treated like a crime scene until the cause is determined, Waco police Swanton said.

Searchers are marking homes and businesses as they search them, but Swanton said he was unsure of what particular markings might mean.

He confirmed there was one instance of looting and said no arrests have been made.

The McLennan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the deaths while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will investigate the fire at the plant.

ATF spokeswoman Franceska Perot said early Thursday that a team of agency specialists was on the way that includes fire investigators, explosives experts, chemists, and canine units.

Early Thursday morning West EMS Director Dr. George Smith said six firefighters and two paramedics were confirmed dead and that seven nursing home residents were missing after the blast.

He estimated Wednesday night that as many as 60 or 70 people may have died in the blast at West Fertilizer.

Smith said early Thursday morning he expects more bodies will be found during the search of damaged and destroyed homes.

He said a city official was also missing.

One police officer who was reported missing was located Thursday morning at Waco hospital where he was being treated for several injuries.

Department of Public Safety Trooper D.L. Wilson said the blast ripped the 50-unit apartment building apart, leaving little more than a skeleton.

Reports Wednesday night indicated that some residents of the building were trapped including two children, but additional information wasn't immediately available.

A nearby nursing home was also damaged and the 133 residents were evacuated, he said.

Some were injured, but he didn't have a count.

Wilson compared the damage to the April 19, 1995 explosion that ripped a side off the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Early Thursday morning, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton issued a disaster declaration in response to the explosion.

TCEQ personnel were positioned within a quarter mile of the site early Thursday morning and were monitoring conditions.

The agency deployed its mobile command post to West and additional staff members will respond from the San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth regions.

The TCEQ cited the plant for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006 after receiving a complaint from a resident about a strong ammonia smell.

A team of federal investigators was also en route to West.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying "a large investigation team" to investigate the blast, spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said.

In a statement issued early Thursday, Cohen said the board's Western regional office director, Don Holmstrom, heads the team.

Brian Mechell of West took a photograph of the fire before the explosion, which was forwarded to News 10 by Tara Gerik of West.

Gerik said the building that was on fire is called the Dry Barn and that it contained ammonium nitrate.

Anhydrous ammonia tanks are visible to the left of the building.

Fire continued to smolder at the plant early Thursday morning, but Wilson said toxic fumes and concerns about a second explosion made it impossible for firefighters to get close enough to douse the flames.

We're worried about people right now, not property," he said.

He estimated the number of homes damaged by the blast at more than 50 and said many more residents were displaced.

"Half of that town over there is totally evacuated," he said.

Emergency crews from throughout Central Texas responded just before 8 p.m. Wednesday after the explosion, which was reported at around 7:50 p.m. in a frantic radio call from the scene of the fire at West Fertilizer at 1471 Jerry Mashek Dr. just off Interstate 35.

The resulting fire spread to the Middle School and to a nearby nursing home.

The blast was felt throughout the city and as far away as Hillsboro, Whitney and Blum.

Most of the injuries resulted from debris being thrown from the blast, glass, doors and other shrapnel, authorities said.

Everyone within one mile of the fire was ordered to evacuate.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the area looked like a war zone after the blast, which had a magnitude of 2.1, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building in 1995 produced a blast with 3.0-magnitude.

"The magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event," the USGS said on its website.

A triage area was first established at the intersection of Haven and North Reagan Streets, but it was later moved to Marable Street and Meadow Drive because of the potentially toxic smoke from the fire.

As many as a dozen helicopters were sent to the area and were landing at West High School stadium and at least two-dozen ambulances were waiting there to transport victims to hospitals.

The staging area was later moved because of the threat of an explosion from a second burning tank.

The explosion knocked out power to a large area of the community.

Oncor's online outage site showed more than a thousand customers without power at one point.

Interstate 35 remained open, but a number of emergency vehicles were on the highway headed to West and from West to hospitals.

The Texas Department of Transportation advised motorists to avoid the area.

A woman who was passing through West on Interstate 35 at the time of the explosion said she and her boyfriend saw a fireball 100-feet wide shoot into the air.

A man who lives 15 miles northwest of Hillsboro felt the concussion from the explosion.

Army Sgt. Rocky J. Havens said in an e-mail he felt the shock in Italy, north of Hillsboro.

Tonya Harris of Groesbeck said in an e-mail she heard the explosion.

"My husband and l were cleaning up the kitchen after supper, and heard what we thought was someone running into our house. It shook our windows and doors. We immediately ran outside looking for the worst," she said.

Crystal Dahlman of Blum said in an e-mail, "The explosion shook and rumbled my house worse than thunder."

Brad Smith of Waxahachie said he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.

Lydia Zimmerman of Bynum was working in the garden with her husband and daughter at the time of the explosion.

"It sounded like three bombs going off very close to us," she said.

Gulf war veteran Paul L. Manigrasso felt the blast in Waxahachie.

"Based on my naval experience...we knew immediately what it was, but cannot believe it occurred 40 miles away," he said.

Chris Moore was at a Wednesday night prayer service in Navarro Mills about 35 miles from West.

He said the blast rocked the church.

"We are praying for our neighbors in West right now," he said.

Waco lawyer Walter Skip Reaves lives about 3/4 mile from the fertilizer plant.

He said the blast sounded like a bomb.

All of the windows and doors in his house were blown out, as were the windows of the rest of the homes in his neighborhood, he said.

Gary and Donna Redding felt the blast in their home in Combine just outside of Seagoville.

"We heard what sounded like thunder that rattled our storm doors and shook the house slightly for a few seconds," they said in an e-mail.

Freshman State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, issued a statement expressing sympathy to victims of the blast.

"While little is still known at this time regarding details of this horrific incident, we must continue to keep all those impacted in our thoughts and prayers," he said.

"As we continue to gather details on this tragic event, I have full confidence in our first responders and stand ready to assist in any way possible," he said.

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(Photo by Rachel Cox)