More Than 160 People Injured In Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Robert Siegel speaks with Wade Goodwyn, who has the latest on Wednesday night's explosion in the small town of West, Texas.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We're learning a little more, today, about the devastation in the small town of West, in Texas. It was the scene of last night's massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. And while there's still no official word on the number of dead, authorities estimate that between five and 15 people were killed. More than 160 were injured.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been in West today and he's with us now. Wade, what does the town look like. Give us a description.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Well, this is a very small town, 2,000 people. And most of the homes are relatively OK. By which I mean you might have doors that were partially blown off or windows broken. There's a lot of broken glass in the town of West. The stores on Main Street, their plate glass windows are blown out. You don't saunter down the sidewalk now, so much as you crunch your way, with your cowboy boots.

But there are some neighborhoods that are just a couple of blocks away from the fertilizer plant that are devastated. And by devastated, I mean completely destroyed. A large apartment complex has been so damaged that as the search and rescue teams move through it looking for survivors, they're having to brace the buildings so it doesn't come down on top of them.

SIEGEL: Now, Wade, we're hearing a number of eyewitness accounts of the explosion. And we've seen and heard a number of recordings of it, including this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN EXPLOSION)

DERRICK HURTT: Chloe, you safe?

CHLOE HURTT: Yes.

HURTT: You OK?

HURTT: I can't hear.

HURTT: Cover your ears.

HURTT: I can't hear. Get out of here.

SIEGEL: That tape of a man and his daughter in a pickup truck near the fertilizer plant has made the rounds online. I gather you were able to talk with them today about their experience.

GOODWYN: I did. Derek Hurtt is the man's name. And he had just picked up his 12-year-old daughter, Chloe, from catechism classes and they were headed home when they saw the big plume of smoke in the sky. And Chloe wanted to go take some pictures with her cell phone.

HURTT: We went over there and it was the fertilizer plant. You know, my daughter, she's, you know, curious, like me, and wanted to go over and see it. And she took pictures and video and then - with her phone. And I thought, well, I'll go ahead and I'll video the structure collapsing. And then, we'll go ahead on home.

GOODWYN: Derek pulled out his phone and started filming too, the plant was burning furiously and they were waiting for a tall tower to collapse. He warned Chloe there might be an explosion.

HURTT: The fire was so intense we thought, you know, any minute now it's going to buckle and go down and we'd have it on video. And I think I mentioned that in the video right here, that it should collapse. And right when I said that, you know, it boom - and that was it.

GOODWYN: The blast lifted the side of Hurtt's truck up off the two wheels closest to the plant. Hurtt was thrown on top of Chloe and she began to scream in terror.

HURTT: It was just everything turned black for what seemed to be like, you know, five seconds or better. And I was thinking in my mind, you know, you're dead. You know, that was it for you. You're done.

GOODWYN: Although Chloe was desperate to leave, debris began to fall all around them. And Hurtt decided to stay put till he could get his bearings.

Another group of about a dozen people had gone into the fields to get closer to the fire, and to take pictures on their phones.

HURTT: And then after the blast, I looked over there. And I kind of - I got out of the truck and, kind of, started looking around, and all them people were gone.

GOODWYN: Eventually Derrick and Chloe drove home. It took several hours for Chloe's ears to stop ringing. Her eardrums are still sore. One day later, the seventh grader is hanging in there.

HURTT: I'm feeling OK.

GOODWYN: You shook up or you OK now?

HURTT: I'm a little shook up.

GOODWYN: I'll bet.

Chloe will be OK but not her school. It was completely destroyed by the explosion.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn in a conversation earlier with Chloe and Derrick Hurtt.

Wade, what have you learned about this plant and what they've caused the fire and explosion?

GOODWYN: Well, we're not sure. I mean I heard one earlier report that the fire could have been started accidentally by a welder, but that's not confirmed yet. We know that first there was the fire, then something blew up, and there's some speculation that it was a railroad car full of anhydrous ammonia. But whatever it was, that killed several volunteer firemen who were there fighting the fire, which is tragic.

SIEGEL: What's the history of this plant, in terms of explosion or risk of some dangerous event there?

GOODWYN: Well, the plant has been here for years. I mean everyone I talk to, the plot was there before they were born. It's not a big plant. It's a small operation, just a million dollars in business. It kind of serves the local farmers. There was a complaint about an ammonia smell in 2006 and state regulators came out. They just told the plant to get the permit that was missing, and that was that. There have been some reports of some theft, likely from a methamphetamine production - but again, nothing major.

SIEGEL: Is there any current danger? Is the fire out, and what's the air like in West?

GOODWYN: I think the worst is behind us. A big thunderstorm came through last night. At first, those high winds were fanning the flames and spreading the fires everywhere. But then came a lot of heavy rain. And that's done a lot for the air quality and for the fires on the ground. So the town feels as safe as it can feel one day after a massive explosion destroys a sizable chunk of it. But everybody is shook up and they'll tell you so - man, woman and child.

SIEGEL: NPR's Wade Goodwyn in West, Texas. Thank you, Wade

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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