WACO

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31.5492
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-97.1464

When marketing senior Hannah Hutyra got a call from her mom, who said there had been an explosion, Hutyra said she didn’t understand why her mom sounded upset.

“Nothing ever happens in a tiny town like West,” Hutyra said. “It’s not like it’s a big city.”

Hutyra, who grew up in West, a town about 20 miles north of Waco, drove back Thursday to be with family and friends after a fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday night. 

“I’m in shock, still, I think,” Hutyra said. “I know it’s going to hit when I get home. The things I’ve been hearing — it sounds like a war zone.”

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area and said he will seek a federal emergency declaration from President Barack Obama after a fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday night.

“It’s been a tragic, difficult 16 hours for all of us, all of our friends and all of our loved ones,” Perry said at a press conference Thursday. “Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community.”

The current death toll is around five to 15, and some reports are narrowing the toll to eight to 10. Hutyra said her uncle and his brother, Doug and Robert Snokhous, are among the
volunteer firefighters still missing.

“The men in our town volunteer in their free time,” Hutyra said. “That’s what you do in a small community. And you just feel safe.”

The blast occurred at around 8 p.m. Wednesday, injuring over 100 people and damaging at least 75 homes, a school and a nursing home. Teams are still going through the remains of the plant in search of survivors.

At the press conference, Perry and other state officials spoke to the scope of the incident. Perry said President Obama called him from Air Force One en route to Boston and promised a quick turnaround on declaring a federal emergency.

Perry said multiple state agencies are responding to the situation in West: the Texas Department of Public Safety is supplying law enforcement personnel, Texas Task Forces 1 and 2 are conducting search and rescue operations, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is conducting air quality tests and the Texas Department of Transportation is directing traffic.

Officials addressed concerns about the cause of the explosion and the history of West Fertilizer Co., which operated the plant.

Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said West Fertilizer Co. had not been inspected since 2006, when a complaint was filed about an “ammonia odor” emanating from the plant. Covar said generally plants are only inspected when a complaint is filed.

Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management at the Texas Department of Safety, said the department still needs to conduct an investigation to determine the cause of the explosion.

“It’s really too soon to speculate on what the cause of this was and what products were involved,” Kidd said.

Kidd addressed concerns that firefighters used water to put out the fire when ammonium nitrate was present, possibly creating a reaction.

“I’ll tell you, a lot of firefighters will use their No. 1 tool, which is water, in a hazardous materials, chemical situation like that to cool the surrounding environments, to cool those other things to keep them from cooking off or exploding,” Kidd said. “I don’t think we should be second-guessing right now the actions of the first responders and whether they were applying water at the appropriate place at the appropriate time.”

Perry said he was not prepared to say what the economic impact on the community would be and did not know how significant of a presence the plant had as an employer in the town.

“West is a really small community and just a few thousand people … They know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family,” Perry said. “It’s touched practically everyone in that town.”

Megan Leinfelder, an advertising junior from Waco, waited for more than an hour and a half in order to donate blood to support the West community. The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas sent more than 220 units of blood to the Carter Blood Care satellite site in Waco, and had already replenished their stores through donations by Thursday afternoon.  

“If you live in Waco, it’s not uncommon at all to know people from West, or have friends with family in West,” Leinfelder said. “I knew I would want to help as soon as I heard.” 

Officials backtrack on fatality count in fertilizer explosion in West

WEST — Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Jason Reyes backtracked on previous statements at an afternoon press conference Thursday regarding the number of fatalities of the fertilizer plant's explosion in West, a small town about 20 miles north of Waco.

Previously, officials had said they believed 5-15 were dead as the result of an explosion that happened Wesnesday night. Reyes is now saying he cannot comment on how many died, just that there are fatalities.

The explosion destroyed 50 to 70 homes, an apartment with 50 complexities, a nursing home and a nursing school. People as far as 45 miles away claimed they could hear the explosion.

The next press conference is scheduled for 6 p.m. CST.

B.J. Walters, his grandma Joyce Rucker and dog Pepe are temporarily staying at the First Baptist Church in Gholson, about 10 minutes east of West, after an explosion at a fertilizer plant occured near their home on Wednesday. Fifty to 60 homes were reportedly destroyed in the explosion, and the Walters family are unsure of the fate of their home. Many local businesses, schools and churches in the area have opened their doors to anyone who needs shelter or assistance.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

WEST — Resident of West, B.J. Walters is sitting on an air mattress in the First Baptist Church of Gholson with his dog Pepe and his grandmother Joyce Rucker at 3:57 a.m. on Thursday when he says "nothing bad ever happens in West."

"The worst thing that happens in West is somebody gets too drunk," Walters said. "That's the worst thing that happens in West."

But Wednesday evening, something bad did happen in West. Walters, 23, had evacuated from his home in West after an explosion at a fertilizer plant killed several people, caused immediate damage to nearby buildings and resulted in evacuations. Most recent reports from the Waco Police Department say five to 15 people are dead, and several first responders are still missing. The explosion also destroyed 50 to 75 homes, an apartment complex with 50 units, a middle school and a nursing home.

More than 100 people were treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. Another 65 were treated at Providence Health Center in Waco. Providence Health Center spokeswoman Heather Beck said injuries ranged from mild to moderate. In the early hours of Thursday morning, she said only one patient was in intensive care.

The explosion is currently believed to be an industrial accident. The smoke from the explosion is no longer considered a threat to safety, according to most recent police statements. The weather in West for Thursday is rainy and cold. There is an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms and temperatures are expected to drop to below 50 degrees. 

West is a small town about 20 miles North of Waco with a population of less than 2,800 people. The explosion could be heard not only in Waco, but also 45 miles away in Waxahachie and other towns. 

Walters, who was recording a radio broadcast when the power in his two story apartment went out, said the explosion made the ground shake — it felt like a real earthquake. Police told Walters and his grandmother to evacuate shortly after the explosion when they stepped outside. They only managed to bring their small dog with them — the rest of their materials are in their home, which Walters is not sure is still standing. He said when they left, part of the attic had collapsed. 

"It's truly devastating. We don't know how devastating, but its going to be devastating. The pictures we have seen … it looks like a war zone," Walters said. "I don't think I am going to recognize the beautiful town of West."

In response to the explosion, schools and churches in the surrounding towns have opened their doors  to evacuees. One of them is the Gholson ISD school building about 10 minutes east. During an interview at 3 a.m., Gholson ISD Superintendent Pam Brown said no one had taken shelter at her school building yet, but that is likely because many in the community already have a friend's place to stay at. Brown said she had the space and food to host up to twenty evacuees.

"Everybody is going to be touched by this, because everybody is going to be related to somebody that was injured," Brown said. 

Walters, who said he has heard from most of his friends but not all, agrees.

"When the names of the victims come out, there won't be one that everybody doesn't know," Walters said. "That's how close we are. We're very, very close."

Walters said he appreciates the surrounding towns and cities that had opened their arms to him and his fellow West residents. He said West has intense sports rivarlies with other towns, but that is set aside right now. 

"Even though we're rivals on the field, tonight we are nothing short of friends," Walters said.

Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WEST — A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday killed an undetermined number of people and sent flames shooting into the sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following a blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction.

The explosion at West Fertilizer Co in West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. 

“We do have confirmed fatalities,” Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said at a news conference about four hours after the explosion. “The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We’re in there searching the area right now and making sure that it’s safe.”

Melany Jean, an anthropology and art history junior from West, said she felt helpless and shocked when she heard the news. Jean, who went to West High School, said her parents moved closer to Waco earlier this year, but her good friends and grandparents still live in town — and that she was able to contact them through social media.

“I heard from my immediate friends, mostly because we’ve all been checking up on each other through social medial, twitter, etc..” Jean said. “So far, everyone has been fine, but it’s going to be an incredibly heavy blow. We’re a small community.”

Jean said she has faith in the resilience of her community.

“It’s a really small town, with a lot of people, and everyone is either family or feels like family,” Jean said. “I think the people who aren’t as affected will step up, quickly, for the people who are. It’s such a great town.”

Jean said the fertilizer plant, which is located in a residential area, has never been a cause for concern in the West community before.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they felt unsafe about it, ever,” Jean said. “Honestly, I’ve never even thought about it.” 

The explosion caused the roof of what appeared to be a housing complex of some kind to collapse. In aerial footage from NBC’s Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, KXAS, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.

Authorities set up a staging area on a flood-lit high school football field, where the injured were being treated or taken to area hospitals via road or helicopter.

Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received 66 injured people for treatment, including 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.

American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.

Printed on Thursday, April 18, 2013 as Fetilizer plant explodes in West

Melany Jean, UT student from West: "Such a great town."

Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.
Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.

Melany Jean, an anthropology and art history junior from West, said she felt helpless and shocked when she heard the news of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, a city about 20 miles north of Waco.

Jean, who went to West High School, said her parents moved closer to Waco earlier this year, but her good friends and grandparents still live in town — and that she was able to contact them through social media.

“I heard from my immediate friends, mostly because we’ve all been checking up on each other through social medial, twitter, etc..” Jean said. “So far, everyone has been fine, but it’s going to be an incredibly heavy blow. We’re a small community.”

Jean said she has faith in the resilience of her community.

“It’s a really small town, with a lot of people, and everyone is either family or feels like family,” Jean said. “I think the people who aren’t as affected will step up, quickly, for the people who are. It’s such a great town.”

Jean said the fertilizer plant, which is located in a residential area, has never been a cause for concern in the West community before.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they felt unsafe about it, ever,” Jean said. “Honestly, I’ve never even thought about it.”