WEST, Texas — A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday injured dozens of people and killed an unknown number of others, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin and leveling buildings for blocks in every direction.
The explosion at West Fertilizer in West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. It sent flames shooting high into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
A member of the city council, Al Vanek, said a four-block area around the explosion was "totally decimated." Other witnesses compared the scene to that of 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.
Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said just after midnight that an unknown number of people had died and more than 100 were injured.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs "your prayers."
"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."
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town's department went to the plant to fight a fire about 6:30 p.m., and the blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
He said the main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins.
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. Wilson said later that all of the injured had been removed from the scene and taken to hospitals in Waco.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN his hospital had received 66 injured people for treatment, including 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.
Robinson and spokespeople at other area hospitals did not immediately return messages from The Associated Press.
Among the damaged buildings were 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that Wilson 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.
"We did get there and got that taken care of," Muska said of the nursing home evacuation.
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."
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