Search and rescue efforts continue after devastating blast at Texas fertilizer plant

Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 18, 2013 

WEST -- Search and rescue teams from across the state were "methodically" searching heavily damaged buildings for survivors Thursday morning, some 15 hours after a powerful blast at a fertilizer plant in the small central Texas town of West.

The fatality count stood at "five to 15" at first light, but was expected to rise, officials said. More than 160 people in the town of about 2,800 were injured in the blast, which registered 2.1 on the earthquake scale.

Gary Adair, son of the plant's owner, told the Star-Telegram that the plant, the decades-old West Fertilizer Co., had been closed for about three hours when the explosion occurred. He said the family had no idea what prompted the fire and explosion.

Several of the volunteer firefighters who had responded to the initial fire remained unaccounted for Thursday, Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said.

One of those firefighters is Morris Bridges. His son, Brent Bridges, 18, said the family has been told that he is still missing and probably didn't make it.

Brothers Robert and Doug Snokhous are also among the unaccounted volunteer firefighters.

Though in Florida, Marqee Snokhous spent the early morning calling every hospital in hopes finding out that her father, Robert Snokhous, and uncle were among the injured, and not the missing or dead.

As of 12:30 p.m. Thursday, she said the family still had not received confirmation about her father or uncle’s fate.

“There’s not been anything official but the mayor did call my stepmom,” she said. “He told her that he’s pretty sure that they’re both inside the business in the plant, trapped in there. And that there’s a pretty high probability that there’s no survivors there.”

During a 11:45 a.m. news conference in Austin, Gov. Rick Perry said West has been declared a disaster area.

"Last night’s disaster was truly a nightmare scenario but we are blessed in Texas to have the best emergency response teams in the nation," Perry said.

Swanton said Texas Task Forces 1 and 2, the Burleson Fire Department heavy rescue unit and Fort Hood search and rescue workers were "methodically" searching house to house for survivors.

Some structures, including a 15-unit apartment building, had to be reinforced before they could safely enter, he said.

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were in West assisting with the investigation, Swanton said.

He said the firefighters and the injured constable were at the scene fighting a fire when the plant exploded Wednesday night.

"There are true heroes out there today," Swanton said. "And they are civilians saving lives with us."

Adair, the owner's son, said he rushed to the plant after seeing the explosion Wednesday. It had obviously been leveled, he said.

He and his 6-year-old grandson then headed to the town's community center, where some of the injured were being taken.

He helped load up those injured in the blast as they arrived in cars and in the back of pickups. They were mostly residents from a nearby nursing home that had been severely damaged.

He arrived home about 4 a.m. He said he was with his father, who was too distraught to talk.

"Everybody in town basically knows everybody," Adair said, his words dissolving into sobs. "It's really rough. It's a tragedy."

Though he awaits confirmation like the rest of the town, Adair said he had a pretty good idea of who are among the dead.

"There are people you know just like a brother," he said.

A fire broke out at the plant at 7:29 p.m. and the West Fire Department responded. As they fought the fire, the plant exploded. Swanton said the first call about the explosion was logged at 7:53 p.m.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said 50-60 homes were damaged in a five-block radius of the blast.

Ricky Adams was driving his Ford F-150 pickup to a Knights of the Columbus meeting and was only about a block from the plant when it exploded.

"It sucked the ceiling down over my head, threw me into the dashboard and shattered the back window," he said. "I never felt anything like it in my life."

His mother-in-law and her sister share at room at the nursing home that was damaged in the blast, he said. His mother-in-law was ok, but her sister was injured and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital.

"We're not sure how she is doing right now," he said.

Residents who were evacuated from their homes waited for information from authorities on what, if anything, was left standing.

Misty Kaska and her husband Brian and 1-year-old daughter live in a home about 100 yards from the plant. They were in Waco when they got word that the plant was burning and asked her brother to go check the home.

The plant exploded while he was on the way.

"He did see the house crumble and catch on fire," she said. "It was just rolling black smoke."

Thursday morning, family members helped load up Kaska's pickup with paper towels, food and other supplies.

"All of our belongings, all of the pictures of our daughter from this past year -- gone. My wedding ring is gone," she said. "We lost it all."

Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center CEO Glenn Robinson said early Thursday that the center had treated more than 100 of those injured and no deaths have occurred at Hillcrest.

Robinson said 14 of the hospital's cases were considered serious and may require admission to the hospital.

Two cases were sent to a specialized pediatric unit at McLane Children's Hospital in Temple. There were blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds, and a lot of lacerations and cuts, Robinson said.

The hospital heard of the explosion at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Robinson said. At 8:02 p.m., Hillcrest went to 'code green' status, calling all off-duty workers back in. The hospital received its first patient from the scene at 8:15 p.m. The hospital ceased its 'code green' status at 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

More than 60 victims were seen at Providence hospital in Waco, too.

Three patients, two women and one man ranging in age from 80 to 90, were taken to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, a spokeswoman said. Two were believed to be from the nearby nursing home. All were in critical condition.

People were first treated for injuries on the floodlit high school football field in West until the second tank in the fertilizer plant was recognized as a hazard. After that, people were told to evacuate the area immediately.

Air quality is no longer a concern, Swanton said. "There is no threat to safety from the smoke of the fire," he said.

The scene of the explosion is being treated as a crime scene until investigators are able to enter the plant.

"I have no indication that this was anything other than industrial fire. It is better to treat it as a crime scene and then call it a industrial fire later," Swanton said. "We always start out looking at the worst scenario."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been called in to investigate the explosion. The McLennan County Sheriff's Office will investigate deaths related to the explosion.

What they saw

DPS trooper D.L. Lewis said this is "an unbelievable tragedy," and likened the blast aftermath to Iraq or the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the 1996 bombing.

Emergency workers were searching door to door throughout the night for victims of the powerful blast, which was felt as far north as Arlington and sent a mushroom cloud high into the sky. Lewis said 75 to 100 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the town of fewer than 3,000 people.

"I saw homes burning. Some homes were leveled," Swanton said. "It was almost tornadic."

Muska, a volunteer firefighter, was on his way to the plant to fight the fire when the explosion occurred.

"[It] blew my hat off," he said. "[The plant] was fully engulfed in flames."

Buildings affected by the blast include a nursing home with about 130 residents, he said.

"We need your prayers. There's a lot of people that I'm sure are not going to be here tomorrow," Muska said at an 11 p.m. news conference.

Perry said state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.

"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement.

"We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."

Community response

West's kolache bakeries are a popular stop on Interstate 35. Several injured people came to the Czech Stop bakery, said Barbara Schissler, president of the store.

"There have been many injuries," she said by phone.

"It's just crazy here. Like a war zone."

As she talked, emergency sirens could be heard continuously in the background.

Beverly Nunley, the Czech Stop's store manager, said the blast was so powerful that it rattled the walls, which knocked signs and framed pictures of celebrities to the floor.

"We've been told to shut our gas pumps off," Nunley said

West, in McLennan County, is 68 miles south of Fort Worth.

Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report which includes material from The Associated Press.

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