WEST, Texas - Emergency teams went house to house through mounds of debris Thursday searching for bodies and possible survivors of the earthquake-like blast at a fertilizer company Wednesday night, which sent a ball of fire and burning embers into nearby homes.
State investigators would not confirm the number of deaths from the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co., in this small town 20 miles north of Waco. As many as 160 others were injured. Initial reports put the count as high as 15, and later estimates provided to the mayor's office put the toll at more than 30.
But in an interview with USA TODAY late Thursday, West Mayor Tommy Muska said revised estimates put the death toll closer to about 15 people, including 10 first responders.
Muska said the dead include five members of the West Volunteer Fire Department who were trying to put out a still-unexplained blaze, four EMS workers and an off-duty Dallas firefighter who pitched in. Not all the bodies have been recovered but all are assumed dead.
Two volunteers who showed up to help fight the blaze are also missing and presumed dead, he said.
The remaining fatalities include fertilizer company workers and residents in several devastated blocks of this north-central Texas agricultural town about 80 miles south of Dallas.
"It's just a tragic, tragic incident," Muska said.
Between 50 and and 75 homes and buildings - including an apartment complex, the junior high school and a nursing home - were destroyed or seriously damaged.
"The apartment complex looks like it was the site of a bombing, the kind you see in Baghdad," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said at an afternoon news briefing. "It's utterly destroyed."
He also said railroad tracks to the west of the blast site were fused together and a playground was obliterated.
The blast, which rocked the ground with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, could be felt as far as 45 miles away.
"We risk our lives everyday. Those firefighters knew what they were going into," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said. "They went in there to save lives, and that's what they did. A few of them lost their lives in doing so."
Officials said there was no initial indication that the blast was anything but an industrial accident, although agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene investigating, along with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
The facility, which receives fertilizer by rail and distributes it to local farmers, declared in a risk-management plan filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that it did not have sprinklers or other fire-safety measures in place because it was not handling flammable materials, the Associated Press reported.
Last summer, records show, the company paid a $5,250 fine and took "corrective actions" after the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found safety violations, including not having a security plan to transport flammable anhydrous ammonia and not properly labeling the tanks.
The state requires that all facilities handling anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures, a top official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told AP.
The commission last inspected the West Fertilizer facility in 2006, another agency official said. Records also show that the last time the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration visited the business was in 1985, when an inspector fined it $30 fine for a serious violation in storing anhydrous ammonia.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the devastating explosion "truly a nightmare scenario" for the small farming community. He declared a state of emergency for McLennan County and dispatched National Guard troops.
The governor also said that President Obama called him from Air Force One en route to Boston to offer federal aid.
Earlier, Mayor Muska told reporters that his town of 2,800 people needs "your prayers."
Officials said it did not appear that the town was threatened by chemical fumes from the plant, which was still smoldering hours after the explosion.
Emergency teams had responded to a fire call at the plant at 7:29 p.m. CT. The explosion erupted 24 minutes later, as the firefighters, police and paramedics were battling the blaze and attempting to evacuate nearby residents.
"They were responding to the scene and were actively fighting the fire at the time the explosion occurred," Swanton said.
First responders to the West Rest Haven Nursing home removed 133 residents, many in wheelchairs, from the rubble.
Jimmy Girad, 27, a builder, was in his home about 7 miles from the blast site when the explosion rattled windows and scared his two young sons. His initial thought: a training jet from a nearby military base must have crashed nearby. Then he saw smoke coming from the fertilizer depot and began getting calls from family members. He hopped in his truck and sped off toward the smoke to help.
He arrived at the West Rest Haven Nursing Home and began wheeling elderly residents there away from the blast site, he said. Nearby, relatives' homes had collapsed roofs and there were piles of charred rubble where friends' homes once stood. The destruction and chaos reminded him of the devastation he witnessed while volunteering on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"It's hard to take it all in, that this happened here," Girad said.
He said the depot had been there so long that no one thought it could inflict so much damage.
"It never crossed my mind something like that could happen," Girad said.
Bill and Polly Killough had just sat down to watch TV when the explosion roared into their living room. The front door blew in and the windows exploded at the same time, followed by the roof collapsing and a thunderous boom, Polly Killough, 64, said.
Her first thought was: tornado. But after clawing out from under the debris and stepping outside, she saw no thunderclouds or storm.
"What the hell just happened?" she asked.
Around her, neighbors homes were stripped of siding, their roofs caved in and doors and windows blown in. The scene reminded her of TV images she'd seen from Iraq.
"Now I know what soldiers go through when they go through an [improvised explosive device]," she said. "In an instant, just total destruction."
In one video, posted on YouTube, a young girl, Khloey Hurtt, is taping the fire from about 300 yards away while sitting in a truck with her father, Derrick. The force of the blast knocks them both backward.
In the video, Khloey can be heard pleading with her father, "Please get out of here, please get out of here, Dad, please get out of here. I can't hear anything."
Derrick Hurtt later told NBC's Today show, "I'm pretty sure it lifted the truck off the ground. It just blew me over on top of her. It all happened so quick that things just kind of went black for a moment."
"The injuries that we are seeing are very serious,'' said Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. "There are a number of patients that will be going to surgery. ... It's a very, very unfortunate situation.''
Robinson said that 10 or 12 of the injured were in critical condition. Two people were in surgery as he spoke and two more were awaiting surgery, he said.
Robinson said an unknown number of people with minor injuries were being treated at a triage center set up by emergency medical personnel at a high school football field.
Swanton, who was one of the first officers on the scene, said the chaos and devastation was staggering.
"I've been policing for 32 years and seen some pretty rough stuff in that time," he said. "I've never seen anything of this magnitude."
The blast and ball of fire reduced a middle school to rubble and seriously damaged least 50 houses. A 50-unit apartment building looked like a "skeleton," according to one state trooper. Some structures as far away as a half-mile were destroyed.
Julie Zahirniako said she and her son, Anthony, had been playing at a school playground near the fertilizer plant when the explosion occurred. She was walking the track, he was kicking a football.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)