Massive Blast at Fertilizer Plant Rocks Texas Town

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 18 2013 10:03 AM

Massive Blast at Fertilizer Plant Leaves Texas Town Looking "Like a War Zone"

This week keeps going from bad to worse: A massive blast at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on Wednesday night injured and killed an untold number of people and forced local authorities to evacuate many residents out of fear of a second explosion. The fiery blast occurred shortly before 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET), but given its size and the scope of the emergency response, we may not know the exact magnitude of the damage for some time. But one thing is clear: It looks bad. Very bad.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

"It's a lot of devastation. I've never seen anything like this," said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara last night, according to Reuters. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris." Authorities still have not been able to take a full head count, but a hospital in nearby Waco was told to prepare to treat as many as 100 people, CNN reports. A spokesman for the local fire department went one step further, suggesting to Reuters that the explosion and ensuing fire has resulted in "probably hundreds of casualties." Local officials have estimated that five to 15 people—at least two of which are paramedics—have been killed, although that number is likely to rise as the search-and-rescue effort continues in the town of about 2,800.

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"We’re going house to house, business to business," Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton said at an early morning news briefing. "I think we’re going to see fatalities increase."

West is about 20 miles north of Waco and 80 miles south of Dallas.

At a news conference last night, West Mayor Tommy Muska said that buildings in at least a five-block radius of the plant were severely damaged by the explosion, including a local nursing home, from which first responders evacuated more than 130 patients, according to the Associated Press. The Waco Herald Tribune reports that firefighters were trying to put out an existing blaze at the plant when the blast occurred. Several are still unaccounted for. Local officials told the paper that anhydrous ammonia and other components at the plant contributed to the explosion.

Officials say it's too early to say what caused the fire that triggered the blast. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is sending teams of investigators to West to assist in the investigation, according to the Washington Post. "Nothing at this point indicates that this was anything other than an accidental fire. But we are not ruling anything out," said Swanton, a police spokesman. "Until we know that it was an industrial accident, we will investigate it as a crime scene."

To give you an idea of what type of blast we're talking about, here's the amateur video being shown on local and national news. (Warning: The audio at the end is tough to listen to. Use your own discretion, or turn off your audio. You've been warned.)

The West blast comes one day after the 66th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history: the Texas City disaster of 1947, a fertilizer explosion that killed more than 580 people when a French-flagged vessel hauling ammonium nitrate caught fire, resulting in a chain reaction of fires and explosions that destroyed much of the port city. West is about 240 miles northwest of Texas City.

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This post was originally published at 1:06 a.m., and has been updated with additional information as it became available.

Will Oremus contributed to this report.