At least three people were reported dead and about six firefighters were missing Wednesday night as rescuers continued to battle intense flames after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco, officials told reporters at the scene.
The huge blast and fireball left dozens of other people injured and a massive wake of destruction that was visible for blocks.
Officials said chemicals at the plant plus the fire created a “TNT-like explosion” at the West Fertilizer facility in West, about 20 miles north of Waco.
The exact number of people injured was unknown late Wednesday. But West Mayor Tommy Muska said that about six firefighters were unaccounted for and that 131 people were safely evacuated from a local nursing home, according to a Waco Tribune reporter tweeting from the area.
Muska told reporters that 60 to 80 homes in a 5-mile radius were destroyed and that the nursing home was badly damaged. “There’s going to be casualties,” he said.
One official said the area “looked like Iraq.”
D.L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, spoke briefly to reporters about 10 p.m. PDT. Wilson described a wide field of devastation, including skeletal remains of homes and an apartment building near the blast site. He said rescue personnel were conducting door-to-door searches for victims.
He said at least 100 people had been injured but he had no information to share about the number killed.
“I can’t give you a number right now,” he said.
Asked about the reports of 50 to 60 dead, Wilson said, “I cannot confirm or deny that; I do not have that number.”
He said the forecast was for a change in the direction of the wind overnight, which would mean more evacuations would be needed.
Aerial footage showed fires still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings, and people being treated for injuries on a local football field, which had been turned into a staging area for emergency responders.
Debby Marak told the Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke in the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home. She said she drove over to see what was happening, and that when she got there, two boys came running toward her screaming that the authorities ordered everyone out because the plant was going to explode.
She said she drove about a block when the blast happened.
“It was like being in a tornado,” Marak, 58, said by phone. “Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield.”
“It was like the whole earth shook.”