12 bodies recovered from site of West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion; at least 35 reported dead

About 200 people injured in explosion

WEST, Texas - Twelve bodies have been recovered from the site of a fertilizer plant explosion, law enforcement officers say.

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said Friday that about 200 people were injured in the explosion at facility Wednesday night in the small farming community of West, about 20 miles north of Waco.

Search and rescue crews have been sifting through the still-smoldering remains for survivors. That work continues. The blast crumpled dozens of homes, an apartment building, a school and a nursing home.

Authorities say there's no indication that the blast was anything other than an industrial accident sparked by a fire. The company has been cited for apparently minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.

Tommy Muska, the mayor of West told USA Today that around 35 people, including 10 first responders, died in the blast.

Muska told the newspaper Thursday that five of the 10 first responders were members of the town's volunteer fire department.

The other fatal victims were four EMS workers and an off-duty Dallas firefighter who joined the response, Muska told the paper. He said not all the bodies have been recovered.

Muska told the Los Angeles Times the number might be as high as 40 dead and said he got that number  because all other residents and first-responders were identified.

"It's just a tragic, tragic incident," Muska said. "I ask for your prayers."

Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said Thursday he doesn't know how many people have been rescued since the Wednesday night explosion. But he says officials on the ground remain in "search and rescue mode," going building to building in the largely decimated neighborhood surrounding the plant.

All surviving residents in the effected area have been evacuated, Muska said.  The search and rescue effort is ongoing.

"I ask for your prayers," Muska said at a news conference Thursday.

The explosion leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was "totally decimated." The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to "a skeleton," a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.

Other witnesses compared the scene to something from the Iraq War or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city's Murrah Federal Building.

Authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life.

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't gonna be here tomorrow," Muska said. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."

In the hours after the blast, many of the town's residents wandered the dark and windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the fertilizer plant when the explosion hit. She was walking the track, he was kicking a football.

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 lifted into the air.

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

The town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant at 7:29 p.m., Swanton said. Due to the plant's chemical stockpile, "they realized the seriousness of what they had," he said.

Muska was among the firefighters, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 20 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.

The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., authorities said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins. Swanton said early Thursday authorities were not concerned about lingering smoke from the fire.

Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene in the hours after the blast, as fires continued to smolder in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings. Aerial footage showed injured people being treated on the flood-lit football field that had been turned into a staging area.

Vanek said first-responders treated victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center. Swanton said the injured rescued so far had been taken to hospitals in Waco and a triage center at high school in nearby Abbott.

Erick Perez, 21, of West, 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."

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 rushing in to help. A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the state sent personnel from several agencies to help, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state's emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state's top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.

Blood supplies from North Texas are being shifted to the city of West, and officials said blood donations will be needed, Schechter reported Thursday.

Swanton said he had no details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.

In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.