Rescuers are searching through rubble for survivors after a massive explosion at a Texas fertiliser plant killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160. The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake, levelling homes and businesses for blocks in every direction.
The explosion in West, about 80 miles (130 kms) south of Dallas, could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
"They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes," Waco police Sgt William Patrick Swanton said. "At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue."
He said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate as search and rescue operations remain under way. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said. Among those believe to be dead: A group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertiliser Co about an hour before the blast. They remain unaccounted for.
The US Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. An Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions also was coming in, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, dogs and forensic specialists. But entry to the blast site wasn't expected until later. "It's still too hot to get in there," said a spokesperson. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene.
The explosion that struck around 8 pm local time flattened 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 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.
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," Mr 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 plant when the explosion hit. 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."
Erick Perez, 21, of West, was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. 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," he said. "This town is hurt really bad."