The nightmare continues for the town of West as morning dawns and the extent of the devastation becomes clear. Governor Rick Perry will have a press conference later this morning to discuss the state’s response to the disaster. The death toll is estimated at the moment to be between five and 15 people, but Dallas Morning News reports that authorities fear that number will climb sharply, including some of the first responders who have gone missing:
Emergency personnel were bracing for the possibility of dozens of dead in the blast, which was reported at 7:53 p.m. and could be heard 45 miles away in Waxahachie.
Although authorities confirmed that at least five to 15 people had died, shortly before 5 a.m. they were still saying they did not have an official total. They have said they expect to find more bodies as they continue to search the area.
West’s EMS director, Dr. George Smith, confirmed after 4 a.m. that two emergency personnel had been killed in the explosion, which occurred at West Fertilizer Co., just off Interstate 35, about 80 miles south of Dallas.
Smith said he could not yet confirm whether three to five firefighters and one police officer who have been reported as missing had died.
The devastation has been massive:
City Council member Al Vanek said a four-block area around the explosion’s epicenter was “totally decimated.”
Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city’s Murrah Federal Building.
Numerous buildings were on fire, including the nursing home and West Middle School. An emergency dispatcher calling for multiple ambulances said, “We do have a lot of injured here.”
Everything around the plant had been blown apart or collapsed, including a nearby apartment complex with about 50 units that had been destroyed.
Among the damaged buildings were 50 to 75 houses.
“That whole side of town looks like a disaster,” Bill Manolakis said. “Who in their right mind sticks a damn plant next to houses?”
Witnesses described a chaotic scene, with rescuers and evacuees scrambling as traffic backed up for miles on I-35 and livestock ran loose.
Response and investigatory teams are on their way:
Information was hard to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help. A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the state sent personnel from several agencies to help, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state’s emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state’s top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Crosscrews from across Texas also headed to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.
CNN updates its story this morning as well, with a clip of the explosion that has gone viral overnight and a fresh look at efforts to contain the disaster. Another tank is still at risk of explosion, and that is hampering rescue and other response efforts:
CBS’ affiliate in Dallas is live-streaming their morning broadcast, which is mostly dedicated to updates on this story:
The explosion was heard, at least in a virtual sense, all the way to Vatican City:
Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 18, 2013
Indeed — and pray for the brave responders who are still running toward the danger to help others get away from it.
Update: From commenter WorkingClass Artist, here is some key information for those in the area. It’s posted in the comments section, too.