x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US fertiliser plant explosion kills 15

Texas governor describes explosion that was heard 60km away as a 'nightmare scenario' for the small farming community of West.

Firefighters sift through the debris of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas.
Firefighters sift through the debris of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas.

AUSTIN // The Texas governor, Rick Perry, said yesterday that a fertiliser-plant explosion that killed at least 15 people in the town of West was a "nightmare scenario" for the small farming community.

Barack Obama, the US president, expressed his sadness after the explosion at West Fertilizer rocked the town, which is about 35 kilometres north of Waco.

The tragedy happened shortly before 8pm on Wednesday and the blast was heard 60km away.

The explosion sent flames shooting high into the night sky and rained down burning embers, shrapnel and debris on shocked and frightened residents.

"A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives," said Mr Obama.

Authorities said yesterday that as many as 15 people were feared dead and more than 160 were injured in the blast which levelled homes and businesses.

Mr Perry said that much of the information about the victims remained "very preliminary" yesterday but that at least 75 homes were damaged in the blast.

He added that Mr Obama had offered a quick turnaround on declaring the surrounding county an emergency disaster area that was eligible for federal aid.

Lt Gov David Dewhurst said the force of the explosion had knocked people "all over the town" back three metres, throwing some through windows.

The Mayor of West, Tommy Muska, said the town's 2,800 residents needed "your prayers".

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt," he said. "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."

Mr Muska said the main fire was under control as of 11pm on Wednesday, but residents had been urged to remain indoors because of the threat of further explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins.

Dozens of emergency vehicles gathered at the scene in the hours after the blast, as fires burnt in the ruins of the plant and several surrounding buildings. Injured people treated on a floodlit football field that had been turned into an emergency staging area. Officials said other victims were treated at about half a dozen sites.

Glenn A Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, said his hospital had treated 66 people, including 38 who were seriously hurt.

Their injuries included blast injuries, orthopaedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts, he said.

Among the damaged buildings were houses, an apartment complex with about 50 homes, a school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which 133 patients were evacuated, some in wheelchairs.

Erick Perez, 21, of West, was playing basketball at a nearby school when the fire started. He said he and his friends thought nothing of it at first, but about a half-hour later, the smoke changed colour.

Then 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."

The explosion knocked out power and could be heard and felt for miles. Lydia Zimmerman said that she, her husband and her daughter were in their garden in Bynum, about 7km from West, when they heard multiple blasts.

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

Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Mr Perry's office, said several agencies were in West or on the way, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state's emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding was the state's top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and medical units.

The US Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with officials to find safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse