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Rain hampers search for survivors of Texas explosion [Update]

Even as as President Obama pledged federal assistance to the devastated community, morning rainfall was hampering search and rescue efforts Thursday at the site of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, which killed as many as 15 people and injured 160.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said more than 200 law enforcement officers from throughout Texas are trying to recover bodies from the debris and rescue possible survivors.

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The explosion destroyed and damaged homes and leveled apartment buildings within a half-mile radius of the close-knit town, located about 20 miles north of Waco.

McNamara, who has been sheriff for just four months, said he wouldn’t have a full count of the dead and missing until later in the day.

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“This is heartbreaking. There’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “The devastation was unbelievable.”

Obama, in Boston to attend a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, called Texas Gov. Rick Perry from Air Force One to tell him that his prayers are with the people of West, aides said.

He offered any federal resources that may be needed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other offices, a White House statement said.

The president also placed a call to the mayor of West, but has not yet reached the official, the aides said.

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Waco police Sgt. William Swanton told “CBS This Morning” that “there is nothing at this point to indicate this is a criminal issue,” but he stressed that “we don’t know” what happened.

Residents of the community rushed to care for hundreds displaced by the blast. Evacuation centers that were established for residents were mostly empty Thursday, as people who had fled their homes were being sheltered by their neighbors, an evacuation site coordinator said.

Texas fertilizer plant explosion: Searching for victims in closets, under beds | 7:44 a.m. PDT

Rescuers were going door-to-door Thursday morning in neighborhoods decimated by the explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant, searching in closets and under beds for residents after a massive blast that killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said.

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Three or four firefighters who are among the missing “were our first responders,” Waco police Sgt. William Swanton told reporters at a news conference early Thursday. “They were the ones who went to the scene ... and were actually fighting the fire as the explosion occurred.”

One volunteer firefighter who was previously listed as missing was found at an area hospital, but his condition as unknown, Swanton said.

Authorities from nearby Waco were assisting West officials in rescue and investigation efforts.

Gov. Rick Perry is scheduled to speak about the disaster later Thursday morning in Austin, as investigators from all levels of government descend on West, a town of 2,800, to try to determine the cause of the explosion that leveled four blocks.

President Obama, in Boston for an interfaith service for victims of the bombing at the city’s marathon, said in a statement that the administration “is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs.”

“West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people,” the president said.

As search and rescue operations were underway, officials were watching a storm system that is moving into the area. Any resulting rain would make the searches more difficult but could slow the spread of a chemical plume from the fire, Swanton said.

He added thatthe tight-knit, family-oriented community had pulled together for those who have lost their homes.

“You talk about leaning on each others’ shoulders? They are absolutely doing that,” he said. “I can promise you, the city of West’s citizens will not let a person stand out in the rain, whether they know you or not, they will bring you into their home and you will be comfortable.”

As many as 15 dead, 160 wounded | 5:36 a.m. PDT

An explosion shattered a fertilizer plant in a rural Texas town, flattened blocks of homes and businesses and left as many as 15 people dead and more than 160 injured, officials said Thursday morning.

Hours after the explosion tore through the heart of West, Texas, a town of about 2,800 people in the north-central portion of the state, hundreds of firefighters and first responders were still battling the remnants of the blaze at the West Fertilizer Co.

“They are still getting injured folks out, and they are evacuating people from their homes,” Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning.

“At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue,” he said.

Even as evacuations and triage continued, officials estimated the number of injured at more than 160, some of whom were in serious condition. Many were evacuated to hospitals as far away as Dallas.

West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city needs the prayers of everyone.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are hurt, and there’s a lot of people, I’m sure, who aren’t gonna be here tomorrow,” Muska said. “We’re gonna search for everybody. We’re gonna make sure everybody’s accounted for. That’s the most important thing right now.”

The Wednesday night blast shook houses 50 miles away and measured as a magnitude 2.1 seismic event, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” Muska said. “Big old mushroom cloud.”

The death toll was between five and 15 people, according to authorities, who stressed that was still a fluid count. As many as five volunteer firefighters were unaccounted for, they said.

There is no indication that the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, but the area was being treated as a crime scene, a routine precaution, officials said.

The explosion stunned the region, eerily coming almost exactly 20 years after the massacre in Waco, about 20 miles away. Seventy-six members of the Branch Davidians died in 1993 after a 50-day siege of their compound. April 19 is also the anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where 168 people were killed in 1995.

A fire was reported at about 6 p.m. local time at the factory, and volunteer firefighters immediately responded. However, they faced a difficult job because of the danger from chemicals, including ammonia, used in the production of fertilizer.

By 8 p.m. the plant exploded, turning a radius of four city blocks into a flattened zone, according to City Councilman Al Vanek. He told reporters that that area was “totally decimated.”

The property damage was fierce, including at least 50 houses. An apartment complex with about 50 units was stripped to its skeletal support, according to video from the scene. A middle school was also hard hit.

The West Rest Haven Nursing Home was in the danger zone, and firefighters said they had evacuated more than 130 patients, many in wheelchairs.

The explosion was heard dozens of miles away and witnesses, interviewed by local television, repeatedly compared it to an earthquake.

Mayor Muska was among the firefighters and said the explosion knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.

The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., authorities said. By dawn Thursday there was lingering smoke and the stench of chemicals still in the air.

About 100 of the injured were treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, where five people were in intensive care, officials said. Others were taken to Providence Health Center in Waco. Officials said the injuries included broken bones, bruises, lacerations, respiratory distress and some head injuries and minor burns.

There were no immediate details available from police on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell, according to the Associated Press.

ALSO:

Many feared dead in Texas fertilizer blast 

Toxic cloud could be spread by strong winds in Texas

Videos point to suspects in Boston Marathon bombings

michael.muskal@latimes.com


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