Ammonia behind Texas blast
Authorities have identified the substance that exploded in the Texas factory blast as anhydrous ammonia, a caustic chemical used around the world to manufacture fertiliser.PT0M45S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2i2nl 620 349 April 18, 2013
Rescue workers are searching rubble for survivors of a fertiliser factory explosion in a small Texas town that has killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160 others.
The explosion in downtown West, about 130km south of Dallas, shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away.
There are a lot of people that got hurt. There are a lot of people that will not be here tomorrowWest mayor Tommy Muska
It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.
The day after: the remains of a home burn early on Thursday morning. Photo: AP
The blast, which one official likened to a ‘‘nuclear bomb’’, left the factory a smouldering ruin and levelled buildings for blocks in every direction.
Smoke and a strong burnt smell lingered in the air hours after the blast in the small town of West, near Waco, and officials expressed fears that toxic fumes could settle over the town. There was also concern that a second fertiliser tank could explode, stoking anxiety in a nation already on edge after the nerve-jangling Boston marathon bombings and a scare in Washington over mail apparently laced with the poison ricin sent to President Barack Obama and a US senator.
An apartment complex and a nursing home were destroyed, local residents flooded into emergency shelters, and at least 100 patients were hospitalised following the blast, which US seismologists said had a magnitude of 2.1.
Burnt out: The remains of West, Texas, fertiliser plant continue to burn into the night. Photo: Reuters
‘‘It’s like a nuclear bomb went off,’’ West mayor Tommy Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, told CNN.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, D.L. Wilson, told reporters:
‘‘We have confirmed fatalities. The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute.
Huge explosion: the blaze at the fertiliser plant. Photo: Sky News screen grab
’’House-by-house searches were being conducted to find any additional victims, Wilson said.
‘‘They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes,’’ Waco police Sgt William Patrick Swanton said early on Thursday morning.
He added later, ‘‘At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue.’
Photographer Andy Bartee said on Instagram that he'd "never felt anything like that" after the blast sent a plume of smoke into the sky. Photo: Andy Bartee on Instagram, @andybartee
’Swanton said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that was an early estimate as search and rescue operations remained under way. There was no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.
Among those believe to be dead are a group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co about an hour before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early on Thursday morning.
The huge blast also came just before the 20th anniversary on Friday of a deadly confrontation in Waco between federal authorities and heavily armed members of a religious group, the Branch Davidians.
This sequence of photos, from left to right, shows the plant on fire, and then the sky going white after an explosion. The third picture shows the intense flames after the blast. Photo: Screen grab
The explosion at the West Fertiliser Co plant, sparked by an enormous blaze, occurred just before 8.00pm on Wednesday (1100 AEST Thursday), Waco assistant fire chief Don Yeager told AFP by phone.
The cause was not immediately known but Yeager said it was an anhydrous ammonia explosion. Flames continued to flare at the plant, sparking fears more explosions could widen the disaster that the mayor said had levelled up to 80 homes in the small Texas town of 2,500 people.
As a precaution, the Federal Aviation Administration declared a no-fly zone over the area around West, over fears another blast could bring down small aircraft.
This Google Earth image shows the location of the fertiliser plant in relation to the school and hospital in West. Photo: Google Earth
But Swanton told reporters firefighters had brought the fire in that part of the plant ‘‘under control and I don’t think that’s any longer a threat’’.Power and gas has been cut to some areas of the town as a precaution, Swanton added.
But he said ‘‘air quality is a concern’’, adding that authorities were watching the wind patterns and ‘‘where the cloud may drift’’, and expect they will need to order further evacuations.
Mark Felton, executive director of the Waco-based Heart of Texas Red Cross, told AFP that people were ‘‘flowing into the shelters’’ set up for evacuees and those whose homes were destroyed, without providing a specific figure.‘‘There are hundreds of emergency response vehicles lined up,’’ Felton said.
Engulfed in flames: up to 70 people are believed to be dead after a huge explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas. Photo: Reuters screen grab