Smoke rises in the distance about half a mile from the West Fertilizer Company April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. A massive explosion at the fertilizer company injured more than 100 people and left damaged buildings for blocks in every direction. The death toll from the blast, which occured as firefighters were tackling a blaze, is as yet unknown. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
by Rick Jervis and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
- Emergency teams are combing through mountains of debris in a four-block area
- Explosion and fireball destroyed homes, businesses, a school and nursing home
- West Fertilizer was listed as having two chemical violations and one registration violation
WEST, Texas - Texas authorities said Friday evening that 14 bodies had been recovered from the massive fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night and that only one or two people remained missing.
Five of the dead were with the West Fire Department, and four were emergency medical service workers.
The number of missing and unaccounted-for people was lowered significantly from the 60 that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn had announced mid-day.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said it had taken a bit to figure out where everyone was.
"We had folks call in from Dallas and say 'Aunt Suzy didn't answer her phone,' so we put Aunt Suzy on the list as possibly missing. But really Aunt Suzy doesn't answer the phone most of the time anyway," he said at a news conference in West.
Now that officials have had the chance to pull the records of everyone who was treated, "we can eliminate 99% of the people on the list. So we may end up with one or two more missing, but I couldn't even say that," Felton said. "This community is a small community. Search and rescue did a very thorough job."
Many of the people who were on the missing list simply didn't have a home any more, said West mayor Tommy Muska.
"They're living in a hotel or with Momma, but their cousin in Dallas doesn't know that," he said.
The mayor's home was one of the 150 houses destroyed when the West Fertilizer Co. exploded as firefighters fought a blaze.
"I'm living in a hotel," he said. "My cousin in Austin might not know that. I could be on that list as well, but the list is deceiving because we have a lot of displaced people. Displaced but not deceased."
At a mid-day news briefing, authorities said a dozens bodies had been recovered and Cornyn told reporters that 60 residents were still missing.
"Right now the authorities are going to the hospitals and making sure they know where people are," the Texas Republican said.
Gov. Rick Perry said the search-and-rescue operation had ended except for one house that had burned down.
The blast left surrounding neighborhoods in ruins and injured about 200, Texas authorities said Friday. The city's population is about 2,800.
STORY: Nursing home worker: It was like a war zone
At least three rescue trucks and one fire truck were also destroyed, an indication of how many firefighters had rushed to the scene Wednesday to fight the fire that was burning in the fertilizer facility.
Andrea Jones, 40, lived in the 50-unit apartment building destroyed by the blast. She'd been standing outside, talking on her cellphone with her father and describing the fire to him, when the explosion erupted.
"It was the most horrible thing I've ever been through in my entire life," she said. "It felt like a war zone."
As she ran, a "guardian angel" in a black truck came along, threw open her door and shouted, "Get in!" and they sped off.
She and many other who lost homes are staying at the Czech Inn to await word on when they can return.
"I don't think I can go back into our apartment," she said. "I'm going to have to send my dad in. I'd just get too emotional. It was all too close."
Bill and Polly Killough had just sat down to watch TV when a powerful blast roared through their living room, blowing open the front door, bursting windows and collapsing the roof on top of them.
Figuring it must be a tornado, Polly, 64, and her husband clawed their way out of the debris. But looking around, all she could see was devastation. What she saw resembled a war zone.
"Now I know what soldiers go through," she said. "In an instant - just total destruction."
Federal and state investigators were awaiting clearance to enter the blast area to search for clues to the cause of both the initial fire and explosions.
"It's still too hot to get in there," Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokeswoman Franceska Perot said. There was no indication of foul play.
With destruction so vast, it was well into Thursday before officials could comprehend and then describe the scope of the tragedy. It arrived on a dark week in America, one in which terror struck Boston, poison-laced letters rattled Washington, and Americans pause to recall the anniversaries of the Virginia Tech massacre and Oklahoma City bombing.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who toured the ravaged town, said railroad tracks to the west of the blast site were fused together from the unimaginable heat. He also saw a leveled playground and the "utterly destroyed" apartment building.
Emergency teams were combing through mountains of debris in a devastated four-block area in hopes of finding survivors.
Those killed include members of the West Volunteer Fire Department who were trying to put out the initial blaze, EMS workers and an off-duty Dallas firefighter, the mayor said.
"It's just a tragic, tragic incident," Muska said.
The Dallas Fire-Rescue department said Capt. Kenny Harris, who was at his home in West and joined local volunteer firefighters in battling the blaze at West Fertilizer Co., was killed. Harris, 52, was the married father of three grown sons.
The rest of the fatalities include residents who were in nearby homes when the explosion ripped through town, leveling homes and devastating neighborhoods, Muska said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, declaring the town a disaster area, said the earthquake-like explosion will likely affect every citizen of this tightly knit community located just off Interstate 35. He said President Obama called him from Air Force One en route to Boston on Thursday to offer federal assistance.
Emergency teams had responded to a fire call at the plant at 7:29 p.m. The explosion erupted 24 minutes later, as the firefighters, police and paramedics were battling the blaze and attempting to evacuate nearby residents. The West Rest Haven nursing home, which was heavily damaged, removed 133 residents, many hobbled or in wheelchairs.
Rescue workers were going still through the rubble Friday, searching home by home and room by room in hopes of finding more survivors.
"They want to make sure they don't miss anyone," Swanton said.
The injured were taken by ambulance, car and helicopter to trauma centers and hospitals in Waco, Temple and Dallas. The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter 15 miles away. But only 19 people stayed there Wednesday night, said Anita Foster, a Red Cross coordinator.
"Most people here stayed with friends or relatives," she said. "The whole town's pulled together."
POWERFUL AS OKLAHOMA CITY
West has been a farming hub for the region since its founding in 1892 and by the 1920s was dominated by Czech immigrants. Many of their descendants continue to work the farms and run the businesses that service them.
Czech can still be heard spoken in town, the West Chamber of Commerce points out on its website. And, in a bit of civic boosterism, it describes West as "the perfect blend of small-town hospitality and large city progressiveness."
Its destruction came from a blast so powerful it could be heard 45 miles away and its towering cloud of dark smoke was visible far across the rural landscape.
Texas Trooper D.L. Wilson said the damage was comparable to the destruction caused by the truck bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly 18 years ago Friday, killing 168 people and injuring 680. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings in a 16-block radius
For Texans, it recalled the nation's worst industrial disaster at Texas City, near Galveston, when a series of explosions rocked the town's large waterfront petrochemical complex in 1947, killing at least 576 people and injuring 5,000. That blast, like this one, was an ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion, in that case aboard a French freighter.
FERTILIZER DANGER ZONE
Sgt. Patrick Swanton, Waco Police spokesman, was one of the first on the scene. As he drove into West with a contingent of officers, he was met with a nightmarish landscape: charred homes with windows and doors blown out; cars and buildings still ablaze; medical helicopters circling overhead; some homes completely flattened.
"I've been policing for 32 years and seen some pretty rough stuff in that time," Swanton said. "I've never seen anything of this magnitude."
He said there were no indications the blast was anything other than an industrial accident.
On Feb. 26, West Fertilizer, which is owned by Adair Grain, reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services that it was storing up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, plus up to 100,000 pounds of liquid ammonia, the Los Angeles Times reported. Officials said they did not yet know how much of the volatile chemicals were being stored when the facility, which blends and distributes fertilizer to local farmers, caught fire and exploded.
Ammonium nitrate, a key fertilizer component, can be explosive and has been used in roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran, packed a rented truck with it.
"It is a very volatile material," says David Small, spokesman for the Pentagon's task force to counter improvised explosive devices, called IEDs. In Afghanistan, 80% of the roadside bombs that target U.S. and NATO troops are created from homemade explosives, and most of them are from ammonium nitrate, Small said.
Pentagon explosives experts told the Los Angeles Times that an explosion involving 270 tons of ammonium nitrate would be larger than almost any conventional U.S. weapon.
Kathy Mathers, of the Fertilizer Institute, said she had never seen an explosion and fire of this magnitude in her 23 years in the industry. Fertilizer is made from nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, and she notes that the manufacturing of nitrogen carries great safety concerns.
NO SPRINKLERS OR BLAST WALLS
Feed and fertilizer distributors such as West Fertilizer are registered with the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service, which also inspects them. West - a locally owned, family operation with about 10 employees - is one of 5,92 such establishments registered with the agency, says Tim Herrman, the Texas State Chemist who directs the service. It lists 14 investigators statewide on its website.
"It's a complex facility," he said of West Fertilizer. "Each of the different types of structures could fall under a different regulatory authority. It has fertilizer and grain. And they're also licensed as a feed establishment because of the grain tanks."
According to the service's 2012 annual report on fertilizer distributors, West Fertilizer had two chemical violations and one registration violation.
"We are in the firms multiple times in a year. We were in this firm just recently," says Herrman, who declined to say when it was last inspected.
The Associated Press cited records showing the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.
The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.
In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, the company declared that it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.
In March 2006, the EPA fined West Chemical and Fertilizer, as the company was known then, fined $2,300 for not updating its risk-management plan, not keeping good records on employee training records and not having a formal written maintenance program.
STORY: Fertilizer facility in Texas was cited, fined in past
Attorney Terrence Welch of Richardson, Texas, an expert on land-use law in the state, says it's not surprising that homes and schools would be located near industrial facilities in a small town such as West, which grew up around railroad tracks.
"In a lot of small towns, you'll find houses not far from these types of facilities," he says. "Even though cities have zoning powers, the houses have been there sometimes long before cities adopted zoning ordinances."
Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance, which oversees the State Fire Marshal's Office, says it's up to local fire authorities to conduct inspections of such facilities. His office is assisting federal ATF agents in investigating the cause of the fire and explosions.
'PLEASE GET OUT OF HERE'
The fireball was captured in cellphone videos seen widely a day after the blast.
In one video, posted on YouTube, a young girl, Khloey Hurtt, is recording 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.
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."
West Mayor Pro-Tem Stevie Vanek, a volunteer firefighter, was in a truck en route to fight the blaze when the explosion struck, rattling his vehicle. The volunteer firefighters pushed ahead, encountering vast and thorough destruction that looked "like a tornado" struck, Vanek said. "Horrendous. You can't imagine the force of that blast."
Despite the destruction, West will come back, Vanek said.
"We have a long row to hoe," he said. "But we will rebuild."
Contributing: William Welch in Los Angeles; Sharon Jayson in Austin; Chuck Raasch in McLean, Va.; Jim Michaels in Washington; the Associated Press.