By Caroline Brewton
and Ashley Pereyra,
WEST — The investigation is still ongoing into the Wednesday night explosion that destroyed the West Fertilizer Plant and rocked the small Texas community. Buildings bore traces of the blast, black plastic trash bags covering the places where panes of glass shattered, some taped to hold them in place. It is a city showing signs of life after Wednesday’s disaster, which resulted in the call for a voluntary evacuation of the small town, population 2,849.
More than 100 were injured, and although officials have confirmed there are fatalities in connection to the accident, no official number is yet available.
Initial reports put the number of fatalities around 15, but later in the day, authorities backed off and refused to confirm any early estimates. Many news organizations and some officials have reported a variety of numbers that only serve to heighten the confusion surrounding reports of the disaster. Search-and-rescue operations continue amid the rubble as citizens, crews and officials search for answers.
The disaster began around 7 p.m. with a fire at a fertilizer plant just outside of the small Czech community. The fire led to an explosion 50 minutes later as chemical tanks were ignited. Buildings surrounding the plant were severely damaged. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who conducted a fly-over of the scene, described the site as “total devastation” in a press conference earlier Thursday evening.
“It was very disturbing to see the site,” Abbott said. “At the time the explosion took place, people sat around the dinner table. At that time, their lives are instantaneously changed.”
Abbott described seeing nearby railroad tracks “fused together” with nearby homes blown apart and blown over. Two nearby schools were also severely damaged in the blast. One suffered a caved-in roof. The other Abbott called “damaged beyond recognition.”
“Had this explosion taken place during school hours, there would have been mass devastation of children,” Abbott said. Other buildings, including an apartment complex and a nursing home, were also destroyed. Seismometers, recording the shaking of the earth during the time of the explosion, recorded a magnitude of 2.1 on the Richter scale. However, estimates that only include ground waves severely underestimate the explosion’s energy, one Baylor professor said.
Dr. Jay Pulliam, a W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geophysics at Baylor, wrote in an email to the Lariat that much of the energy in the air or atmosphere is not directed into the ground. A magnitude of 2.1, which was recorded by the seismometers, does not accurately reflect the size of the explosion. Pulliam said he suspects much of the damage was caused by “shock” waves that traveled through the air.
Jody Claridy, a coordinator at the Victorious Life Church in Waco, was in West at the time of the explosion for her sister-in-law’s birthday celebration at the Pizza Inn. She described hearing a “giant boom” that lifted the patrons out of their chairs.
“It felt like the whole building came up off its foundations. At the time, we saw this big mushroom cloud of smoke,” she said. The sister-in-law took off running — she had an aunt who was a resident of the nursing home close to the plant. Claridy followed.
“We got into our vehicle to go after her, and as we were going into the town we saw that houses were demolished, some were on fire, bricks were off the building, holes in the roof and flying debris,” she said.
Claridy said she was shocked at the devastation at the explosion site. She helped to evacuate people in the area in the wake of the blast, including patients from the nursing home.
“There was this huge wall of black smoke and people were coming out of it. It reminded me so much of 9/11, “ Claridy said. “People were coming out with shirts on their faces. People were holding their babies, glazed because of the shock. Make-shift tourniquets on their heads and just injuries. So we started grabbing people and transporting them out. It’s an experience. It’s like a war zone. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.”
For Ryan Anderson, 41, the disaster also hit close to home. Anderson’s house is located about two miles away from the plant. Anderson, who held up a picture of his injured son on his cell phone to show the press, said he witnessed the disaster from his truck along with his son, whom he had just picked up from his religion class. He and the boy were headed home when Anderson said they noticed flames. At first, he said, they were interested in looking at the fire, but when he noticed the fire was coming from the fertilizer plant, he attempted to maneuver the vehicle away. The blast blew the vehicle off the road. The windows were blown out and his son was injured. Anderson described his vehicle at that point as “disabled,” but said he was still able to get away and seek help.
“We’re truly, truly blessed,” he said. In addition to his son’s injuries and his own, all of the windows of the house were blown out. Despite that, he repeatedly said he feels blessed that the only things he lost were material.
Volunteers and donations to support victims of the disaster have poured in from West itself and surrounding communities. Many efforts have been coordinated through social media as larger organizations struggle to organize themselves.
Dustin Olson, a junior from Manvel, spent the day in West with a volunteer group from a Waco church. The Victorious Life Church collected donations including food, water and clothing. Thursday, a group from the church brought the donations to West, where Olson said they planned to operate a food truck to prepare meals to serve to those affected by the blast. The group found themselves at the Best Western Czech Inn, a hub of donations, where several West families are staying in the wake of the explosion.
“You can see already the beginnings of the community working to piece itself back together,” Abbott said.
Rob Bradfield, Linda Wilkins and Madison Ferril contributed to this report.