Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion 'A Nightmare Scenario'

The search and rescue operation continues after a massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Crews are going through the wreckage of some 75 homes and other buildings. Officials are not giving a death toll — though they are repeating the estimate between five and fifteen. More than 160 people were injured.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The search and rescue operation is still underway in the town of West, Texas, the scene of that devastating fertilizer plant explosion last night. Crews are going through the wreckage of some 75 homes and other buildings, many of them leveled in the blast.

Officials are not giving a death toll, though they are repeating an estimate of between five and fifteen killed. More than 160 people were injured. Coming up, we'll hear about the plant itself. First, to NPR's John Burnett, though, in the town of West.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The good people of this small farming and trading town on the Black Land prairie of central Texas are having a hard time wrapping their heads around what has befallen them. The explosion obliterated a five-block section of their town, killing, among others, their beloved volunteer firemen and injuring scores more. The city has suddenly filled up with law enforcement officers, utility crews, grief counselors and reporters.

And everyone, everyone has a story. A beefy truck driver named Jonathan Roswell(ph) stood on a side street, bewildered after being evacuated from his home for the second time in 12 hours.

JONATHAN ROSWELL: Seemed like a war zone last night with all the EMS and all the ambulances and all the helicopters in the air and smoke in the air.

BURNETT: Today, the search goes on for survivors and for bodies. A cold, drizzly rain helped to extinguish the fires that still smoldered in the neighborhood. Postal worker James Horton(ph) was standing outside the Czech-American restaurant last night when he saw the flames, then the mushroom cloud and waited for the concussion.

JAMES HORTON: I counted 'cause I knew there was going to be a shockwave. So I was like, one, two, three, and then that's when it hit me. I was on the phone with my mom. It blew the phone out of my hand, knocked me back. The old theater next door, it blew the door down.

BURNETT: The larger central Texas community is already pulling together and pitching in. Churches have opened shelters, banks have started donation accounts, restaurants are sending food to emergency workers, hospitals are launching blood drives and the Southern Baptists have sent in their yellow-shirted grief counselors.

This is the worst incident in the 20 years that Jim Richardson(ph) has been working in Baptist Disaster Relief.

JIM RICHARDSON: It's just devastation. A lot of families lost loved ones. A lot of the volunteer firefighters and still a few people missing, as I understand it. A lot of human tragedy.

BURNETT: The deadly explosion is believed to have killed as many as five of the town's 30 volunteer firemen. They're credited with hurriedly moving elderly residents to a safer side of their nursing home and evacuating people from a nearby apartment building. Both quick actions saved lives. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke of the tragedy in Austin this morning.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community. But as I said earlier, we're blessed in this state to have the best emergency management team in the country and they certainly were at their best last night, along with the citizens.

BURNETT: The Pope also tweeted his condolences. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent its national response team to West today to help determine if the fire that caused the ammonia fertilizer to explode was accidental or arson. A police spokesman said, at the moment, there's nothing that indicates criminal activity.

Zachary Herrod(ph), a 20-year-old college student, lived with his grandfather less than a quarter mile from the fertilizer plant. He says their home was destroyed, though they emerged largely unharmed. Today, he's angry that local authorities permitted two public schools to be so close to the plant.

ZACHARY HERROD: Does this seem like a good idea to you? You're building a high school less than - what are we, 300 yards from a high explosive facility. Not only that, but you've got an intermediate school with fourth and fifth graders less than 300 yards from it. Yeah, we had some pretty big concerns about it.

BURNETT: Mr. Herrod just wants to go back and find his lockbox that contains his insurance papers and birth certificate. Then, he says, he's done with West. John Burnett, NPR News, West, Texas.

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