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. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WEST, Texas (USA TODAY) -- The bodies of 12 people have been recovered after an enormous fertilizer plant explosion that demolished surrounding neighborhoods for blocks and left more about 200 other people injured, Texas authorities said Friday.
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Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said it was "with a heavy heart" that he confirmed 12 bodies had been pulled from the area of the plant explosion.
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Officials said that at least 150 homes had been destroyed. They have searched all but 25 homes for bodies and expect to finish the task Friday morning. 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 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 came. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever been through in my entire life," she said. "It felt like a war zone."
She ran away from the devastated building with just the clothes on her back. A "guardian angel" in a black truck sped by, threw open her door and shouted "Get in!" and they raced away from the scene.
Like many who lost homes she is staying in the Czech Inn, a local hotel, while she waits for word on when they can go back into their neighborhood. "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 an "utterly destroyed" apartment building.
Emergency teams were combing through mountains of debris in a devastated four-block area in hopes of finding survivors after the explosion and fireball engulfed and destroyed homes, businesses, a school and nursing home.
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 of some 2,500 people 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.
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 bomb blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly 18 years ago Friday.
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."
While the cause of the blast is not clear, ammonium nitrate used in many such farm applications is explosive and often used to build deadly roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Swanton said there were no indications the blast was anything other than an industrial accident.
"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.
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.
THE SEARCH FOR SURVIVORS
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."
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.
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 592 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 says 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 about a year earlier, the company said 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.
'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."