UPDATED: Rescue efforts continue in fertilizer plant explosion

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U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has called for a Senate investigation and hearings on the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion.$RETURN$$RETURN$

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Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 4:52 pm | Updated: 11:48 am, Fri Apr 19, 2013.

UPDATE 8:10 p.m.:

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said 80 percent of the homes near the explosion site in West and 75 percent of the neighboring apartment complex have been cleared, meaning there are no people in those residences.

He said emergency personnel will work through the night on recovery and clearing operations at the blast site itself.

Kistner said the investigation into the precise location and cause of the fire in the fertilizer plant has not yet begun, so officials have made no determination on those aspects.

Asked if the explosion and subsequent damage to the blast site and the town of West was among the worst emergency situations his office has dealt with, Kistner stated: “No doubt.

“It is by far one of, if not the worst, (disasters) we have seen in the state of Texas.”

Officials, who have maintained a wide no-entry perimeter around the site, hope to shrink that perimeter within the next day or two and allow some residents to return to homes that suffered less-severe damage, he added.

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UPDATE 7:45 p.m.:

West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek appeared at a 7:30 p.m. press conference and did not mention the city’s death toll. Mayor Tommy Muska was absent. Vanek said he was giving the mayor a much-needed break in appearing on his behalf.

Authorities for the state and ATF both said they will not be confirming or releasing an estimate of the number of dead, but instead will leave it up to local authorities to handle when they feel they have solid information.

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UPDATE 7:20 p.m.:

West Mayor Tommy Muska is expected to downgrade his previous estimates of the number of dead in the city to 10, the mayor’s employees told the Tribune-Herald.

Muska was quoted in the L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal Thursday afternoon estimating the death toll at 35 to 40 based on the number of missing people. Department of Public Safety

officials would not confirm that or put a number on the fatalities.

Muska’s employees also confirmed among the missing is City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, a volunteer firefighter.

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UPDATE 6:25 p.m.:

West students will resume classes on Monday, though damage to three district campuses will force students to relocate to different facilities.

The West Independent School District board of trustees held an emergency meeting Thursday morning to determine an action plan to continue educating students, Superintendent Marty Crawford said in a Thursday afternoon press conference.

West ISD seventh- through 12th-grade students will attend schools at neighboring Connally ISD in Elm Mott. West staff and administrators will provide instruction, food and custodial services at Connally, Crawford said.

Pre-K through 6th-grade students will attend West Elementary, which Crawford noted was the only campus not affected by the explosion.

Dallas-area Grand Prairie ISD is donating three double-wide trailers to create an academy on the elementary campus for the sixth-graders, Crawford said.

A district official said Spring ISD, located north of Houston, is donating buses to help transport the students to the Connally campuses. West ISD bus drivers will provide transportation services.

“Our goal for the next 30 days is to make sure (students) have a great experience, that we could put back a little normalcy and consistency in the kids’ lives,” Crawford said.

There are about 1,500 students in the district. Crawford said he has not been told any students were injured or killed during the explosion, and that staff members have all been accounted for.

Crawford said the district will not have STAAR testing next week but will consult with the Texas Education Agency on alternative testing dates.

Crawford said the board and administrators were allowed brief access to the three damaged campuses, which sit within blocks of the fertilizer plant. The intermediate campus caught fire during the explosion and is nearly completely destroyed, while the middle and high school campuses each suffered significant damage.

The intermediate school was evacuated in February for what later turned out to be a controlled burn at the fertilizer plant.

“I don’t know if we ever would have anticipated what happened,” Crawford said.

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UPDATE 5:10 p.m.:

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he has been told that as many as 200 people — between those taken to area hospitals and treated at triage stations in West — were injured in the explosion. Authorities previously said at least 160 were injured, in addition to the five to 15 killed. Search and rescue operations continue, so those numbers may still change.

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UPDATE 4: 50 p.m.:

During a late afternoon press briefing, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes backed away from earlier police statements that five to 15 people died in the explosion. He said he only could confirm fatalities occurred.

yes also was unable to confirm earlier reports that three to five volunteer firefighters remained missing. In interviews, multiple West residents identified volunteer firefighters as among those they knew were unaccounted for.

A five-block area around the blast site remains closed, and Reyes would not speculate on when it might reopen.

The site remains “volatile” because of the presence of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate from the fertilizer company, McLennan County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon said. State and federal environmental regulators were responding to assess any potential danger to first responders, he said.

The cause of the blaze remained undetermined.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appeared with Reyes and Cawthon to praise first responders and warn he would pursue legal action against anyone engaged in price gouging. Abbott also planned to personally survey the damage by helicopter.

The next press briefing was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday.

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UPDATE 1: 45 p.m.:

McLennan County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal will be leading the investigation into what caused the blaze and explosion at West Fertilizer Co.

ATF officials noted it could take six months to determine the cause.

Cawthon said the response team of experts will look for signs of arson and detonation, but noted the material stored there is “volatile by itself.”

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said “Search and rescue teams are doing everything they can. It’s just a horrible situation.”

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UPDATE 11:55 a.m.:

Gov. Rick Perry announced a disaster declaration for McLennan County and said he would immediately request an emergency declaration from President Barack Obama.

Perry said several state agencies are on the scene in West providing support for the community, including the Texas National Guard which is assisting the search for bodies or survivors.

Perry noted that anyone who grew up in a small town the size of West, which has about 2,800 residents, “They know this tragedy has hit about every family in that town.”

The governor said about 70 homes in West have suffered damage from the explosion, some of which were pushed off their slabs.

Connally Independent School District released a statement saying it is making plans to provide facilities, transportation, nutrition and other necessities for West ISD students so they can resume school as soon as possible.

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UPDATE 11:15 a.m.:

Latest information from officials searching for dead and missing in West are that three to four of the first responders from the West Volunteer Fire Department are missing. An estimated five to 15 people are dead, while more than 160 sustained injuries.

“We risk our lives everyday, those firefighters knew what they were going into,” Waco police spokesman W. Patrick Swanton said. “They went in there to save lives, and that’s what they did. A few of them lost their lives in doing so.”

Rescue teams must reinforce some of the destroyed structures, like a 50-unit apartment complex within two blocks of the plant, before entering the buildings.

Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, said of the about 80 patients that came to his facility, 28 were admitted and continue to receive care. Five are in intensive care and two pediatric trauma patients were transported to McLane’s Children’s Hospital in Temple. Another 65 patients were taken to Providence Healthcare Network’s hospital. There, 15 were admitted, said spokeswoman Heather Beck. Beck described the injuries as broken bones, lacerations, concussions and minor burns.

West residents have not been allowed to return home yet as emergency workers continue to search and secure the area around the plant. Many of the evacuees were taken to a local high school for shelter.

“(West) is a very cohesive community,” Swanton said. “Food, clothing, shelter, they don’t have to worry about because they’re taken care of.”

Swanton said he did not know how many people have been rescued from homes.

He also clarified that there was one suspected case of looting in the home area last night, but no arrest was made. He characterized the incident as isolated.

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UPDATE 10:15 a.m.:

Search and rescue efforts are continuing in West. First responders are having to reinforce some of the structures in order to enter and search, Waco police officials say.

Utility workers are traveling with law enforcement and rescue teams to search homes for trapped residents.

“There are some true heroes today,” that include not just first responders, but civilians, said Waco police spokesman Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton.

Swanton said officials heard reports of looting, but have not been able to confirm it.

“This is a community that we’re going to do our absolute best to protect,” he said.

West Community Center is taking calls to help connect family with residents affected by the explosion. Call 254-826-4115.

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UPDATE 9:15 a.m.:

A statement from President Barack Obama on the explosion:

“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.”

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton has issued a declaration of disaster for the county.

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UPDATE, 8:40 a.m.: Officials say three or four West volunteer firefighters remain missing as they believe between five and 15 were killed in the explosion at West Fertilizer Co.

One law enforcement official who was presumed missing has been found and is being treated for significant injuries at a hospital, said Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton.

Search and rescue efforts are still ongoing in the neighborhood closest to the plant, and Swanton said there have been reports of possible looting.

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UPDATE, 8:10 a.m.: As daylight breaks over West, reporters have been able to get as close as a half-mile from the fertilizer plant. Nearly every home in that radius has taken significant damage, including windows being blown in or walls ripped down.

Homes here are painted with Xs of a variety of colors — the mark of rescue teams that were searching buildings for victims. The significance of what the various colors mean is unknown at this moment.

Neighborhoods are largely evacuated. Makeshift roadblocks have been set up about a mile around the site and state troopers are patrolling the area.

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UPDATE, 7:30 a.m.: Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have people on the scene of the explosion and fire and are monitoring environmental conditions outside a perimeter around the plant.

Heavy rain and wind has set in the West and Waco areas.

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UPDATE, 5:15 a.m.: Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton at about 4:30 a.m. said officials are confirming between five and 15 people were killed in the explosion, and more than 160 people were injured. Swanton said the severity of the injuries varied widely.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been called in to investigate the explosion, according to Swanton, who added that any deaths cause by the explosion will be investigated by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.

“I have been given no indication that this was anything but an accidental fire,” Swanton said.

The Waco police spokesman said the efforts in West are still search and rescue, as personnel continue to look for people who may be injured. He also said that the air quality was not a factor at this point for those not evacuated.

Referring to the massive damage caused by the blast and West’s popularity as a tourist stop for kolaches and all things Czech, Swanton added that residents “need more support than sightseeing.”

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UPDATE, 2:05 a.m.: Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center had treated more than 100 patients as of midnight, including 14 that likely would have to be admitted, but no patients had died, CEO Glenn Robinson said. Victims suffered mostly from cuts, broken bones and other injuries expected from flying debris, he said. Many had been treated and released.

More than 30 victims of the West explosion were transferred to Waco’s Providence Hospital, and about nine went to a burn center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas for treatment, Robinson said.

Two injured children were transferred to McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple, he said.

The hospital is asking the public to give blood Thursday at Carter BloodCare on West Waco Drive in Waco or Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple.

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UPDATE, 12:25 a.m.: Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper D.L. Wilson briefed media, saying there were over 100 injuries and there are confirmed fatalities. Wilson said he could not give a firm number of fatalities, however.

“It could go up by the minute,” Wilson said.

The trooper, who went to the fertilizer plant, compared the scene to Iraq and the Alfred P. Murrah building that was bombed in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Wilson said 50 to 75 houses suffered damage, 133 people were evacuated from a neighboring nursing home, and said an apartment complex near the fertilizer plant with over 50 units was “like a skeleton.”

Half of the town of West has been evacuated, Wilson said, adding that if the wind shifts and blows from the north, the other half may need to be evacuated.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth expected precisely that to happen, with a cold front due to reach West between 5 and 7 a.m. Winds already had started to pick up, the NWS said, with gusts up to 38 mph in West.

Emergency personnel will do a house-to-house search overnight, looking for others who may be injured, he said.

At the facility, the fire is still smoldering, and because it is near more flammable chemicals and there is still risk for explosion, firefighters are not being sent in right now, Wilson said.

The trooper lamented the impact the incident has had on the town.

“It’s a small farming community ... they’ve suffered an unbelievable tragedy,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Waco Hall on the Baylor University campus, about 85 students gathered around midnight for a prayer vigil.

Kelly Baker, a McLennan Community College student who went to the vigil, said “you don’t think this would happen to you. We need to do whatever it takes to help out.”

Baker and two friends said they planned to donate blood in the morning.

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Previously: Several firefighters and dozens of others were injured in a fertilizer plant explosion in West shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday night.

Multiple buildings caught fire, including West Intermediate School, 1212 N. Reagan St., after the explosion at West Fertilizer Co., 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, and a dispatcher calling for ambulances said “we do have a lot of injured here.”

Some of the buildings that caught fire were near the 1300 block of North Reagan Street, and a dispatcher said people were trapped in a nearby apartment building.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said shortly after 11 p.m. that six or seven firefighters were in the plant at the time of the explosion and they are not accounted for.

The firefighters were trying to put out a fire at the plant when the explosion occurred, said West Mayor Pro-tem Steve Vanek, who was on his way to help when the blast took place. Officials said anhydrous ammonia and other components at the plant contributed to the explosion once the fire started.

Just after 9 p.m., Vanek was talking to personnel near the scene, visibly upset with his head in his hands, bent over at the waist. One of the people speaking with Vanek said “he lost a lot of his buddies out there.”

West Police Sgt. Michael Irving said he could not confirm the number of injuries or if anyone was killed.

Around 10:30 p.m., Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center CEO Glenn Robinson reported that the hospital had treated 61 patients and had no fatalities. Patients were also taken to other area hospitals.

Shortly after the incident, officials shut down access to the plant at the intersection of North Reagan and Ronda streets and could be seen evacuating people from homes near the facility.

Bill Bohannan, who was visiting his parents at their house in West, near the plant, witnessed the explosion and said it was a devastating blast.

“I said, ‘This thing is going to blow’ . . . and I told my mom and dad to get in the car,” Bohannan said. “I was standing next to my car with my fiancee, waiting for my parents to come out and (the plant) exploded. It knocked us into the car . . . Every house within about four blocks is blown apart.”

A stream of emergency vehicles, including ambulances, sheriff’s deputies, and other emergency vehicles, poured into the town shortly after the explosion. A Hill County sheriff’s deputy who was directing traffic said the explosion shook the windows of his home in Whitney.

Crystal Anthony, who serves on the West Independent School District board of trustees, said she and her daughter were “knocked back” by the blast as they stood blocks away from the plant.

“A nearby nursing home is really bad, there’s an apartment complex and the school (West Intermediate School) that caught fire,” she said. “We’ve been moving patients out of the nursing home and taking them to the football field and gymnastics building on Davis Street.”

Denise Day, a nurse at the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, 300 Haven St., said she had arrived at her home 23 miles from West when she heard the explosion. At first, Day said, she and her husband thought it was thunder.

But after turning on an emergency scanner, they quickly learned what had happened and she returned to help evacuate about 50 to 100 of the nursing home’s 140 residents.

Triage center

Many of those evacuated from the home could be seen sitting in wheelchairs near the end of the high school’s football field with cuts on their heads from flying glass after the explosion. About 15 to 20 ambulances were parked on the football field at about 
9:45 p.m.

Cody Harris, a Ross volunteer firefighter who helped evacuate the nursing home, said he saw 
many injured people, but none of the injuries appeared life-threatening.

Around the same time, police officers and sheriff’s deputies continued to comb the area, trying to evacuate residents within a 1-mile perimeter and looking for people injured in their homes.

Christy Kolacek was eating with her family about three blocks away in downtown West shortly before the incident. She said they saw smoke at the plant and realized it was a fertilizer plant and knew it could blow.

Driving away from the plant in the moments preceding the explosion, Kolacek said they could feel the pressure building in their ears.

Upon returning home, about three blocks from West High School at 
1008 Jerry Mashek Drive, Kolacek said they found all the windows blown out of their house.

Kolacek’s husband said the roof of the high school had collapsed.

Some of those wounded in the blast were taken to Hillcrest, where a tent was set up outside to treat the patients that may have come in contact with 
chemicals.

One woman was severely burned on her face, and about a dozen nurses and doctors were standing outside to meet the patients as they arrived in a variety of vehicles.

Emergency room

Hillcrest’s emergency room was packed with family members who arrived at the hospital waiting for loved ones.

Late Wednesday, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, released a statement expressing sympathy for those impacted.

“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,” Kacal 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.”

Staff writers Kirsten Crow, Regina Dennis, Tommy Witherspoon, Lowell M. Brown, Sandra Sanchez and chief photographer Rod Aydelotte contributed to this report.

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