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Rescuers search for survivors of Texas fertilizer plant blast

By John L. Mone & Nomaan Merchant

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 12:58 p.m. HST, Apr 18, 2013

WEST, Texas >> Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town today for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris or bodies of the dead.

Initial reports put the number of fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.

A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and leveled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away from the town about 20 miles north of Waco.

Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as "tedious and time-consuming," noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.

Searchers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.

There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.

Dogs with collars but no owners trotted nervously through deserted streets in cordoned-off neighborhoods around the decimated plant. The entire second floor of a nearby apartment complex was destroyed, leaving bricks and mattresses among the rubble. One rescue crew going from apartment to apartment gave special attention to a room where only a child's red and blue bunk bed remained.

While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant's huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.

"It's still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The precise death toll was uncertain. Three to five volunteer firefighters were initially believed to be among the dead, which authorities said could number as many as 15. But by late this afternoon, the state Department of Public Safety would not confirm how many had been killed.

Swanton said he would "never second-guess" firefighters' decision to enter the plant because "we risk our lives every day." The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care. Five more were listed in critical condition.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been at a school playground near the plant when the explosion hit.

The explosion threw her son four feet in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from the nursing home, and the roof of the school rose into the sky.

"The fire was so high," she said. "It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking."

First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs. Many were dazed and panicked and did not know what happened.

William Burch and his wife, a retired Air Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first-responders arrived. They searched separate wings and found residents in wheelchairs trapped in their rooms. The halls were dark, and the ceilings had collapsed. Water filled the hallways. Electrical wires hung eerily from the ceilings.

"They had Sheetrock that was on top of them. You had to remove that," Burch said. It was "completely chaotic."

Gov. Rick Perry called the explosion "a truly nightmare scenario for the community" and said he had been in touch with President Barack Obama, who promised his administration's assistance with operations on the ground.

Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It also was used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, Donahue said.

"The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen," he said. "That really happens almost instantaneously, and that's what gives the tremendous force of the explosion."

About a half-hour before the blast, the town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant, Swanton said. They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of the plant's chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding area.

The blast happened 20 minutes later.

Erick Perez was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed color. The blast threw him, his nephew and others to the ground and showered the area with hot embers, shrapnel and debris.

"The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before," Perez said. "This town is hurt really bad."

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to West. An ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions was also expected, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, canines and forensic specialists. American Red Cross crews also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.

The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.

In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.

State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it's not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.

That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit, said the commission's executive director Zak Covar. He said no other complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there haven't been additional inspections.

The company could not be reached for comment. A call to the home of plant owner Don R. Adair rang unanswered.

The federal Chemical Safety Board has not investigated a fertilizer plant explosion before, but Managing Director Daniel Horowitz said "fertilizers have been involved in some of the most severe accidents of the past century."

He noted the 2001 explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant that killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, raising fears at the time that the two could be linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.

Horowitz also mentioned a disaster in Texas City in 1947, when a cargo ship holding more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, killing more than 500 people.


Associated Press writers Michael Brick, Will Weissert and Angela K. Brown and video journalist Raquel Maria Dillon in West; writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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eoe wrote:
Since this is Texas, home of "self-reliance" and hatred of the federal government, I guess we can stop reporting on this because the free market and the private sector will take care of all these people. They don't need a communist central government to help them in their hour of need.
on April 17,2013 | 10:21PM
IAmSane wrote:
You are classless.
on April 17,2013 | 10:51PM
Skyler wrote:
Disgusting comment.
on April 17,2013 | 10:51PM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
How's that anger management class working out?
on April 18,2013 | 01:25AM
phyllum69 wrote:
Wow. Just...wow.
on April 18,2013 | 07:30AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Truth of the matter is that industrial accidents happen. Some are worse than others, this is one of the bad ones. Grain elevators, oil refineries, pipelines, and yes fertilizer plants unfortunately do explode and people die. Yes some companies do a better job of work place safety than others, and the government simply does not have the resources to police all industries, largely because industry has done a good job of weakening oversight legislatively. Condolences to the victims.
on April 18,2013 | 07:52AM
aomohoa wrote:
I have never seen your comments before eoe and I hope I never do again. I disagree with many but I respect them . I have no respect for someone like you.
on April 18,2013 | 08:37AM
patk wrote:
Texans are great people -- unfortunately every state has nut jobs that give a bad name to all. Texas old timers hold a special place in their heart for Hawaii because it was our local boys in the 442nd that rescued a trapped Texas platoon in France during WWII, losing more people then were saved. The late Sen. Inouye was involved in that rescue.
on April 18,2013 | 09:28AM
sayer wrote:
Geez it seems like things are out of whack when something that should be as innocuous as fertilizer would cause such horrific destruction.
on April 18,2013 | 05:18AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
It is because the chemical compound used for fertilizer has explosive qualities. A large stockpile of this fertilizer can turn very deadly.
on April 18,2013 | 06:21AM
false wrote:
The USA has the highest amount of guns registered in the world, per TIME magazine. As a result, and as a sideline, we have the mightiest military in the world, partly because of World War II, and partly because of the Cold War. It is not surprising that the terrorists of the world would want to knock us off our pedestal.

The biggest black eye to us since Pearl Harbor was 911 and that although the Boston tragedy is not even near the magnitude of death as 911, it is almost as disturbing. Security seems to have been increased thousand fold because of 911, however do we have to completely lock up our citizens in order to have complete security?

No, otherwise we would become a communist nation.

on April 18,2013 | 06:27AM
false wrote:
Thank you! Your comment has been added below

You are welcomed.

on April 18,2013 | 06:30AM
aomohoa wrote:
? Why is this comment here?
on April 18,2013 | 08:39AM
false wrote:
Because they allowed it. If u disagree, please report it to HSA, so that they cancel my subscription.
on April 18,2013 | 11:28AM
false wrote:
i got dammmn tired of their subscription department hounding me to continue my subscription, so i finally agreed. Now i am a paying customer, albeit the internet only, and if u do not like me aomoha, please let HSA know so that my voice will be shut off.
on April 18,2013 | 11:30AM
false wrote:
and i better get the remaining 7 months or so of my internet subscription refunded to my card if i get muted, otherwise i will sue the heelll out of HSA.
on April 18,2013 | 11:32AM
soundofreason wrote:
Reminds me of the Pepcon blast that happened in the 80's in Vegas. I happened to be there for that one.
on April 18,2013 | 06:59AM
false wrote:
Please write 1000 words on your being there then. As Jay Leno says, more details u can add, more we believe u, like in the jury trial of MISTER Christopher Deedy.
on April 18,2013 | 07:52AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
The North Koreans did it. I'm waiting for the Taliban to deny responsibility like they did with Boston.
on April 18,2013 | 07:47AM
false wrote:
All those wanting to deny responsibility had better do so now, then they better do so NOW.

Otherwise, the FBI is just releasing some photos of the two men supposedly related to dropping off the backpacks related to the bombings, and all four major networks has been carrying the feed.

They say that although this will lead to more info than necessary, that is the nature of this kind of investigation. For those that watch the show Mystery Detectives or its related predecessor Forensic Files on TruTV, Peter Thomas gives a bone tingling view of how Forensics work.

With the passage of time, crime gets more complicated to prosecute, however homicide carries no Statute of Limitations therefore, time will be limitless to catch those two guys and those who are behind those two guys.

Yes they were two guys. One with a black cap and one with a white cap. Surveillance video showed that the one with the white cap dropped off the backpack with the homemade pressure cooker bomb.

on April 18,2013 | 11:38AM
false wrote:
try bring da stuff !!!!
on April 18,2013 | 07:50AM
false wrote:
try bring da stuff
on April 18,2013 | 07:50AM
false wrote:
What stuff?
on April 18,2013 | 11:40AM
false wrote:
da stuff da stuff da stuff
on April 18,2013 | 11:41AM
false wrote:
This is how frustrating it gets when u talk to someone who is handicapped.
on April 18,2013 | 11:48AM
patk wrote:
Texans are great people -- unfortunately every state has nut jobs that give a bad name to all.
Texas old timers hold a special place in their heart for Hawaii because it was our local boys in the 442nd that rescued a trapped Texas platoon in France during WWII, losing more people then were saved. The late Sen. Inouye was involved in that rescue.
on April 18,2013 | 09:28AM
false wrote:
Well somehow if u identified yourself beyond patk, people would give more homage to u. HSA might even write a story about you. Imagine if u became from page news. I talked to my Auntie Reiko, and she related about a recent story to me.
on April 18,2013 | 11:52AM
Anonymous wrote:
What stuff?
on April 18,2013 | 11:43AM
aomohoa wrote:
Too many drugs or not enough being taken by a a poster or two. LOL!
on April 18,2013 | 04:57PM
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