Assistant City Editor
Fatalities as a result of the explosion in West are confirmed, but a number is not yet known.
At a press conference held just after midnight, D. L. Wilson, Public Information Officer for the Texas State Troopers, confirmed that there had been fatalities but would not confirm a number. When asked on a previously reported death count of 60 to 70, Wilson declined to comment. Wilson did confirm a large number of injuries.
“Right now we have a tremendous amount of injuries, over a hundred at this time,” Wilson said.
At a later press conference, Waco Police Department Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton again confirmed the fatalities but did not confirm an estimated number.
“I think we will see those fatalities increase as we move towards the morning,” Swanton said.
A fire started around 6:00 p.m. at a fertilizer plant outside of the small Czech community which ignited tanks of anhydrous ammonia. The tanks exploded 50 minutes later, severely damaging several nearby buildings including a nursing home, between 50 and 70 houses, West Intermediate School and an apartment complex that Wilson described as “skeletal”.
“It was just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City,” Wilson said.
Several firefighters were fighting the blaze at the plant when it exploded. None have been confirmed dead, but Swanton did confirm that several emergency responders were missing.
“I can confirm there are firefighters who are unaccounted for and there may be one law enforcement officer,” Swanton said.
As far away as downtown West, buildings received damage and broken glass littered the streets.
As the plant burned, many West residents turned their phones towards the flames. Erick Perez, a West native, was at the intermediate school when the plant exploded.
“Me and a couple friends were out playing basketball when we saw smoke coming from the plant and fire. So we all backed out towards the intermediate school and sat there and recorded for a little bit, and watched it blow up, right in our faces,” Perez said.
The injured were originally taken to a triage center at the West High School football field. There, ambulances were loading residents evacuated from the blast area — some seriously injured — and moving them to the hospital. The surrounding roads were filled with fire trucks and emergency vehicles from communities across the area on their way to the blast sight.
At the football field, the air was heavy with fumes from the fire, the smoke from which could be seen rising over the trees. Eventually the wounded and medical personnel were evacuated to the West Community Center. From there the injured were loaded into buses and ambulances or airlifted to area hospitals.
The injured were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, Providence Hospital and several other area hospitals. At last report, 44 of those are in serious condition.
At the time of publication, the fire at the plant was still smoldering and according to Wilson it will likely continue to smolder until the fire dies down.
“Right now we can’t get firefighters in,” Wilson said.
According to Swanton, natural gas and electricity have been cut off to a large portion of the city to “prevent secondary fires.”
While a large portion of the city has already been evacuated and is not in danger should a secondary explosion occur, officials are preparing for another evacuation when the cold front hits later tonight.
“When that north wind changes we’re going to have to evacuate another side of town,” Wilson said.
Law enforcement officers and rescue workers are still going door-to-door in the area, searching houses, confirming injuries and deaths and evacuating residents.
When the explosion hit, volunteers from across the area began to help evacuate area residents.
William Burch, a photographer in West, was one of the volunteers evacuating the apartments and nursing home near the blast site.
“My wife Stephanie and I got in the vehicle real quick and went over to the nursing home and started evacuating the people out of there,” Burch said. “There was sheetrock on the old people, and we had to move that off of them. There was no electricity and the water was leaking everywhere. Everybody that we know is out of there without any fatalities.”
Afterwards, Burch went across the street to the apartment complex to try and evacuate the residents.
“It’s completely, completely destroyed,” Burch said.
Other volunteers formed part of the caravan of emergency vehicles evacuating wounded to the community center. These volunteers pushed wheelchair-bound patients from the nursing home one and a half miles to the new triage site.
West Mayor Tommy Muska is a volunteer firefighter. He was responding to the fire when the explosion hit. Muska described “an enormous blast,” and remembered his hat flying off and pieces of his car being blown off.
In addition to the local volunteers, support has flooded into West from across Central Texas. So much that officials have requested that those wishing to help to not come to West, but send their donations and offer aid to the main evacuation center at Abbot High School or find ways in their communities to support the relief effort.
Baylor students can go to www.baylor.edu/relief to find ways that they can assist in the relief effort.