WEST, TEXAS — Rescue workers searched the smoldering ruins of a fertilizer plant Thursday for survivors of a monstrous explosion that leveled homes and businesses in every direction across the Texas prairie. As many as 15 people were feared dead and more than 160 others injured.
Daybreak revealed a breathtaking band of destruction extending outward from the West Fertilizer Co. in this small farming community about 20 miles north of Waco. The thunderous blast was so powerful that it shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away.
Searchers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.
There was no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
The explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. It leveled a four-block area around the plant, badly damaging or destroying up to 75 houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, a middle school and a nursing home.
All that remained of one home was the fireplace and chimney. Several buildings with smashed roofs and leveled walls still were smoking Thursday morning.
Firm information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles. Authorities themselves had trouble entering the heart of the blast zone.
"It's still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Among those believed to be dead were three to five volunteer firefighters and a law enforcement officer. The many injuries included broken bones, bruises, lacerations, respiratory distress, and some head injuries and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care.