West Mayor: "We’re Still Holding Out Some Hope"

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WEST (April 18, 2013)—West Mayor Tommy Muska said Thursday searchers have found no survivors in the rubble of the dozens of homes and buildings damaged or destroyed by a powerful fertilizer plant explosion, but he told CNN, “We’re still holding out some hope.”

Musaka told CNN that seven West firefighters died in the blast Wednesday night along with five others, but provided no further details.

A note sent Thursday to members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro identified one of the victims as a Dallas firefighter who joined West firefighters at the scene of the blaze Wednesday night.

McLennan County Justices of the Peace Pete Peterson and Kristi DeCluitt spent the day in West making death pronouncements, but it’s still not clear how many lives the blast claimed.

Urban search teams from Texas Task Forces 1 and 2 were in West Thursday, assisting in the house-by-house search for the living and dead.

Responders are doing a "hard, gut-wrenching job," Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said.

"West has seen a tremendous outpouring of support," Swanton said.

He said utility workers were accompanying search crews and described them as heroes for facing the same risks as emergency personnel.

No information about fatalities was released during a late-afternoon news conference that included Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who vowed to go after price gougers.

McLennan County Chief Deputy Matt Cawthon told reporters the affected area is a "highly populated neighborhood" and said the situation remains volatile because of the chemicals stored at the plant.

About 100 patients had been treated and 28 admitted at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, five of whom were in ICU Thursday afternoon.

Twelve elderly nursing home residents were treated and then discharged to other care facilities.

More than 50 other patients were treated and later released.

None of the patients at Hillcrest suffered burns or chemical injuries, the hospital said.

Sixty-eight patients were treated at Providence Health Center and 15 were admitted.

“The victims' injuries were consistent with those associated with an explosion; minor burns, broken bones, lacerations, abrasions, head injuries and respiratory distress,” the hospital said in a press release.

Scott & White received five patients, three at Scott & White Memorial Hospital, two of whom were in critical condition and two at McLane Children’s Hospital, one of whom was in critical condition.

"The people of our community and Central Texas have once again demonstrated our ability to face unexpected challenges and to respond with resilience and strength. We are proud to serve in such a community, and our thoughts and prayers remain with the people of West,” said Glenn A. Robinson, chief executive officer of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center Scott & White Healthcare in Waco.

Nine victims were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and two remained there Thursday.

Lines formed early Thursday at the Carter BloodCare Center in Waco, where residents waited in the early-morning rain to donate blood for injured survivors.

As of noon, close to 300 people had donated at the center in Waco and many more were still waiting to give.

Extra teams were brought in to facilitate donations, the blood center said.

Gov. Rick Perry met Thursday in Austin with state officials to discuss the response to the explosion.

“We are blessed in Texas to have the best emergency response teams in the nation, and they were certainly at their best last night, quickly and efficiently taking control of the situation, tending to the wounded and helping keep a bad situation from getting worse,” Perry said.

“Anyone who grew up in a small town understands that this tragedy will touch every family in West and the surrounding communities in some way. I urge all Texans and Americans to join me in keeping the people of West and our first responders in your prayers as this situation continues to unfold.”

The scene of the explosion will be treated like a crime scene until the cause is determined, Waco police Swanton said.

Searchers are marking homes and businesses as they search them, but Swanton said he was unsure of what particular markings might mean.

He confirmed there was one instance of looting and said no arrests have been made.

The McLennan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the deaths while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will investigate the fire at the plant.

ATF spokeswoman Franceska Perot said early Thursday that a team of agency specialists was on the way that includes fire investigators, explosives experts, chemists, and canine units.

She said the ATF team should be in place by Thursday afternoon.

Earlier Thursday morning West EMS Director Dr. George Smith said six firefighters and two paramedics were confirmed dead and that seven nursing home residents were missing after the blast.

He estimated Wednesday night that as many as 60 or 70 people may have died in the blast at West Fertilizer.

Smith said early Thursday morning he expects more bodies will be found during the search of damaged and destroyed homes.

He said a city official was also missing.

One police officer who was reported missing was located Thursday morning at Waco hospital where he was being treated for several injuries.

There were reports from West Thursday morning that some locations were being looted, but a police officer speaking from the scene said he could not confirm any arrests.

He said the blast caused “a tremendous amount of injuries,” and estimated the number hurt at more than 100.

Department of Public Safety Trooper D.L. Wilson said the blast ripped a 50-unit apartment building apart, leaving little more than a skeleton, Wilson said.

Reports Wednesday night indicated that some residents of the building were trapped including two children, but additional information wasn’t immediately available.

A nearby nursing home was also damaged and the 133 residents were evacuated, he said.

Some were injured, but he didn’t have a count.

Wilson compared the damage to the April 19, 1995 explosion that ripped a side off the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Early Thursday morning, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton issued a disaster declaration in response to the explosion.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited the plant for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006.

The agency investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint from a resident 11 days earlier about a strong ammonia smell.

TCEQ personnel were positioned within a quarter mile of the site early Thursday morning and were monitoring conditions.

The agency deployed its mobile command post to West and additional staff members will respond from the San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth regions.

A team of federal investigators was also en route to West.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it’s deploying "a large investigation team" to investigate the blast, spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said.

In a statement issued early Thursday, Cohen said the board's Western regional office director, Don Holmstrom, would lead the team, which is scheduled to arrive at the scene Thursday afternoon.

Brian Mechell of West took a photograph of the fire before the explosion, which was forwarded to News 10 by Tara Gerik of West.

Gerik said the building that’s on fire is called the Dry Barn and that it contained ammonium nitrate.

Anhydrous ammonia tanks are visible to the left of the building.

Fire continued to smolder at the plant early Thursday morning, but Wilson said toxic fumes and concerns about a second explosion made it impossible for firefighters to get close enough to douse the flames.

We’re worried about people right now, not property,” he said.

He estimated the number of homes damaged by the blast at more than 50 and said many more residents were displaced.

“Half of that town over there is totally evacuated,” he said.

Emergency crews from throughout Central Texas responded just before 8 p.m. Wednesday after the explosion, which was reported at around 7:50 p.m. in a frantic radio call from the scene of the fire at West Fertilizer at 1471 Jerry Mashek Dr. just off Interstate 35.

The resulting fire spread to the Middle School and to a nearby nursing home.

The blast was felt throughout the city and as far away as Hillsboro, Whitney and Blum.

Most of the injuries resulted from debris being thrown from the blast, glass, doors and other shrapnel, authorities said.

Everyone within one mile of the fire was ordered to evacuate.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the area looked like a war zone after the blast, which had a magnitude of 2.1, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building in 1995 produced a blast with 3.0-magnitude.

“The magnitude measures only the ground motion, not the air wave, so is substantially less than the true size of the event,” the USGS said on its website.

Department of Public Safety troopers transported some victims to hospitals in patrol cars, said Gayle Scarbrough at the DPS Communications Center in Waco.

A triage area was first established at the intersection of Haven and North Reagan Streets, but it was later moved to Marable Street and Meadow Drive because of the potentially toxic smoke from the fire.

As many as a dozen helicopters were sent to the area and were landing at West High School stadium and at least two-dozen ambulances were waiting there to transport victims to hospitals.

The staging area was later moved because of the threat of an explosion from a second burning tank.

The explosion knocked out power to a large area of the community.

Oncor’s online outage site showed more than a thousand customers without power at one point.

Interstate 35 remained open, but a number of emergency vehicles were on the highway headed to West and from West to hospitals.

The Texas Department of Transportation advised motorists to avoid the area.

A woman who was passing through West on Interstate 35 at the time of the explosion said she and her boyfriend saw a fireball 100-feet wide shoot into the air.

A man who lives 15 miles northwest of Hillsboro felt the concussion from the explosion.

Army Sgt. Rocky J. Havens said in an e-mail he felt the shock in Italy, north of Hillsboro.

Tonya Harris of Groesbeck said in an e-mail she heard the explosion.

“My husband and l were cleaning up the kitchen after supper, and heard what we thought was someone running into our house. It shook our windows and doors. We immediately ran outside looking for the worst,” she said.

Crystal Dahlman of Blum said in an e-mail, “The explosion shook and rumbled my house worse than thunder.”

Brad Smith of Waxahachie said he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.

Lydia Zimmerman of Bynum was working in the garden with her husband and daughter at the time of the explosion.

“It sounded like three bombs going off very close to us,” she said.

Gulf war veteran Paul L. Manigrasso felt the blast in Waxahachie.

“Based on my naval experience...we knew immediately what it was, but cannot believe it occurred 40 miles away,” he said.

Chris Moore was at a Wednesday night prayer service in Navarro Mills about 35 miles from West.

He said the blast rocked the church.

“We are praying for our neighbors in West right now,” he said.

Waco lawyer Walter Skip Reaves lives about 3/4 mile from the fertilizer plant.

He said the blast sounded like a bomb.

All of the windows and doors in his house were blown out, as were the windows of the rest of the homes in his neighborhood, he said.

Gary and Donna Redding felt the blast in their home in Combine just outside of Seagoville.

“We heard what sounded like thunder that rattled our storm doors and shook the house slightly for a few seconds,” they said in an e-mail.

Freshman State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Bryan, issued a statement expressing sympathy to victims of the blast.

"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,” he said.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) issued the following statement after meeting with officials and surveying the damage from the tragedy in West, TX.

“In this close community, I grieve with the injured, and the family and friends who have lost loved ones. After seeing the site first-hand, I know the road to recovery will be long, but I am encouraged by the many examples I have already seen of this town’s resilience.

“I remain deeply grateful to the first-responders and crews on the ground, and their tireless efforts to ensure everyone’s safety. I will continue to offer support and assistance to the city of West, and ask that all Americans join me in remembering West in their prayers.”

“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," he said.

Video of the plant fire, then explosion
WARNING: graphic and language use