Crews seek survivors, bodies after Texas blast

WEST, Texas (AP) — Rescuers searched the smoking remnants of a Texas farm town Thursday for survivors of a thunderous fertilizer

plant explosion, gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments for anyone still trapped in debris or bodies of the dead.

Initial reports put the number of fatalities as high as 15, but later in the day, authorities backed away from any estimate

and refused to elaborate. More than 160 people were hurt.

A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West. The

blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and leveled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school

and a nursing home. Its dull boom could be heard dozens of miles away from the town about 20 miles north of Waco.

Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as "tedious and time-consuming," noting

that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.

Searchers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Swanton said.

He did not know how many people had been rescued.

There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other

than an industrial accident, he said.

The Wednesday night explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape was wrapped in acrid

smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.

Dogs with collars but no owners trotted

nervously through deserted streets in cordoned-off neighborhoods around

the decimated

plant. The entire second floor of a nearby apartment complex was

destroyed, leaving bricks and mattresses among the rubble.

One rescue crew going from apartment to apartment gave special

attention to a room where only a child's red and blue bunk

bed remained.

While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set

off the plant's huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.

"It's still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The precise death toll was uncertain. Three

to five volunteer firefighters were initially believed to be among the

dead, which

authorities said could number as many as 15. But by late Thursday

afternoon, the state Department of Public Safety would not

confirm how many had been killed.

Swanton said he would "never second-guess" firefighters' decision to enter the plant because "we risk our lives every day."

The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported

in intensive care. Five more were listed in critical condition.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako,

who said she and her son, Anthony, had been 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 rose into the sky.

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

First-responders evacuated 133 patients from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs. Many were dazed and panicked and did not

know what happened.

William Burch and his wife, a retired Air

Force nurse, entered the damaged nursing home before first-responders

arrived. They

searched separate wings and found residents in wheelchairs trapped

in their rooms. The halls were dark, and the ceilings had

collapsed. Water filled the hallways. Electrical wires hung eerily

from the ceilings.

"They had Sheetrock that was on top of them. You had to remove that," Burch said. It was "completely chaotic."

Gov. Rick Perry called the explosion "a truly nightmare scenario for the community" and said he had been in touch with President

Barack Obama, who promised his administration's assistance with operations on the ground.

Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium

nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said

Neil Donahue,

professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It also was

used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center

in 1993.

Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical

reaction, Donahue said.

"The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen," he said. "That really happens almost instantaneously, and that's

what gives the tremendous force of the explosion."

About a half-hour before the blast, the

town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant,

Swanton said.

They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of

the plant's chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding

area.

The blast happened 20 minutes later.

Erick Perez 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."

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to West. An ATF national response team that investigates

all large fires and explosions was also expected, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists,

canines and forensic specialists. American Red Cross crews also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press

show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

fined West Fertilizer

$10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning

to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An

inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly

labeled.

The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not

unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.

In a risk-management plan filed with the

Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said

it was not

handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers,

water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms

in place at the plant.

State officials require all facilities that

handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures

because

it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air

permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it's not known whether they did when the West plant was

last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.

That inspection followed a complaint about a

strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new

permit, said

the commission's executive director Zak Covar. He said no other

complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there

haven't been additional inspections.

The company could not be reached for comment. A call to the home of plant owner Don R. Adair rang unanswered.

The federal Chemical Safety Board has not

investigated a fertilizer plant explosion before, but Managing Director

Daniel Horowitz

said "fertilizers have been involved in some of the most severe

accidents of the past century."

He noted the 2001 explosion at a chemical

and fertilizer plant that killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000

in Toulouse,

France. The blast in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium

nitrate came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,

raising fears at the time that the two could be linked. A 2006

report blamed the blast on negligence.

Horowitz also mentioned a disaster in Texas City in 1947, when a cargo ship holding more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate

caught fire and exploded, killing more than 500 people.