Officials expect Texas blast death toll to rise

Officials expect Texas blast death toll to rise

Officials expect Texas blast death toll to rise

Updated 18 April 2013, 23:12 AEST

Officials in Texas put the initial death toll as high as 15 following a massive fertiliser plant explosion in the small town of West, but fear dozens more are dead.

Officials in Texas are putting the initial death toll as high as 15 following a massive fertiliser plant explosion in the small town of West, but fear dozens more are dead.

Local authorities say more than 160 people have been injured in the blast, which flattened nearby homes and businesses.

The town's mayor, who likened the blast to "a nuclear bomb", says as many as seven firefighters and one police officer are unaccounted for.

The missing authorities were on the scene, attending to a massive fire at the plant when the explosion occurred.

A five-block area of the town was levelled and there are fears people are trapped or dead inside about 70 collapsed buildings.

Such was the power of the blast, the US Geological Survey says it registered as a magnitude-2.1 event even though the nearest seismic sensor is about 40 kilometres away.

Waco police sergeant Patrick Swanton told a press conference on Thursday night (AEST) that the death toll "is estimated anywhere from five to 15 at this point", but added that those figures could change.

West is home to around 2,700 people and is about 130km south of Dallas and 32km north of Waco.

Emergency teams have worked through the night searching buildings in the hope of finding more survivors.

An apartment complex and a nursing home were destroyed and local residents flooded into emergency shelters.

Local police Sergeant Patrick Swanton says evacuations are continuing due to the ongoing danger.

"The fires are under control but still burning," he said.

"My commander, who is on the ground there, is telling me that he is seeing extreme devastation in homes, in some of the businesses."

Much of the centre of town has been evacuated as fires are still smouldering at the plant, sending a toxic plume across the area.

The cause is not immediately known but it is believed to have been an anhydrous ammonia explosion.

Officials are expected to give a further briefing on details of the emergency later tonight (Australian time).

The explosion comes as the US is on edge as it pieces through deadly explosions that hit the Boston marathon earlier this week.

Look back at how the day's events unfolded. All times AEST

11:11pm:

West residents are waking to scenes of destruction in their small town.

Stephanie Ando, a reporter with KBTX Media in the US, described the scene to ABC News 24 just a little while ago.

"Right now we're just starting to see light today. We've actually been here, me and my cameraman, have been here for about seven hours now," she said.

"I can tell you that when we first got here the area near the scene was completely blocked off.

"The only people they were letting in and out were emergency responders and you can imagine they were just focussing on treating the people who were injured at first.

"It's a very small community so it was very obvious that there were emergency vehicles going up and down the highway taking people to the hospitals for hours.

"You could smell the chemicals in the air and anyone that you talked to on the side of the road, people at gas stations, you know, everyone in the community knew someone who was affected or could tell their story about the moment that the explosion happened.

"Everybody felt it for miles away."

10:15pm:

West local Paul Lannuier has uploaded footage of himself travelling through the town shortly after the explosion. He shows scenes of utter devastation from the town:

9:10pm:

The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, gives an update on the situation, saying the nursing home near the fertiliser plant has been fully evacuated:

West mayor Tommy Muska holds a press conferenceVideo: West mayor Tommy Muska holds a press conference (ABC News)

8:15pm:

7.30's Leigh Sales recaps today's events in West and speaks to Waco police about the situation:

6:25pm:

North America correspondent Brendan Trembath speaks to PM about the number of injured:

"Authorities are refraining from releasing a death toll at this stage. There is talk about hundreds injured. One of the local hospitals in the area just up the road is Waco, about 30 kilometres away. There there's a hospital called Hillcrest and they've treated more than 100 there."

"Earlier I watched ambulances and police cars leave that scene and a long line, so there are many, many people who have been injured."

Audio: Listen to Brendan Trembath (PM)

6:18pm:

West mayor Tommy Muska tells CNN there is no indication the explosion is anything but an accident.

5:54pm:

We now have video of Sergeant Swanton's media conference from earlier.

5:43pm:

Professor Priyan Mendis is an explosives expert with the Department of Infrastructure Engineering at the University of Melbourne, where he studies the effect of explosions on infrastructure.

He says he is very surprised at the number of casualties because ammonium nitrate is normally not very dangerous.

"Initial reports are showing it is anhydrous type of ammonium," he told 774 ABC Melbourne.

"Anhydrous means it is without water and dry... it's a gas.

"It has to really combine with dust or other small particles for it to explode, it won't just explode."

Professor Mendis says it is likely the fire caused the explosion.

5:32pm:

The burning remains of the fertiliser plant.

5:26pm:

When asked about the cause of the explosion, Sergeant Swanton said:

"At this point we don't know."

He says he cannot rule out criminal activity.

5:24pm:

Sergeant Swanton says there has been overwhelming support offered from surrounding communities.

"I will tell you there has been a tremendous amount of resources and outpouring from community, not only here in West.

"Those of you that don't know West, it's about 2,800 people. They are a very close-knit community here.

"They have relied heavily on each other tonight for the support they have got."

5:21pm:

The media conference is being held in an auction barn - cows can be heard in the background.

5:19pm:

Local police Sergeant Patrick Swanton says evacuations are continuing due to the ongoing danger.

"The fires are under control but still burning.

"I just talked to my commander who is on the ground there. He is telling me that he is seeing extreme devastation in homes, in some of the businesses.

"They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes."

Sergeant Swanton again confirms there have been fatalities and that the number will become clearer as day breaks.

"I can confirm there may be firefighters that are unaccounted for and potentially a law enforcement officer as well.

"We are still trying to determine that.

"Obviously they were there on scene directing traffic and fighting the fire and helping with the evacuation.

"Again, we don't know a hard number of the fatality count.

"As soon as we can get that, we will get that information to you."

5:13pm:

Officials are holding another update for the media.

4:58pm:

4:55pm:

Chris Sadeghi, a local journalist, paints a picture of the town.

"It's a very small town.

"Even though it's so small it's a town that a lot of people in Texas know about.

"They're known for making some of the best kolaches.

"It has a spot in the heart of a lot of Texans."

Kolache is a type of pastry that holds dollop of fruit in the middle.

4:31pm:

The Texas department of public safety says there is concern that one unexploded tank is venting gas from fertiliser plant.

Depending on wind direction and other factors, people living to the south and west of the plant may need to be evacuated.

People north of the plant are being asked to stay in their homes.

4:25pm:

Here is a selection of images taken by photographers Rod Aydelotte and Kirsten Crow for the local Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper.

More photos can be viewed here.

4:16pm:

Dr Bradford Holland is a head and neck surgeon in Waco. He says medical staff are being told to rest up for a busy day tomorrow.

#Westexplosion Medical staff being thinned now. Told to get rest and prepare to care for a PACKED hospital tomorrow @Hillcrest_Waco

- @DrBradHolland

4:13pm:

A White House official says the Obama administration was aware of the situation and monitoring the local and state response through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

4:12pm:

Jason Shelton, 33, a father of two who lives less than a 1.6km from the plant, said he heard fire trucks heading toward the facility five minutes before the explosion.

He said he felt the concussion from the blast as he stood on his front porch.

"My windows started rattling and my kids screaming.

"The screen door hit me in the forehead... and all the screens blew off my windows."

4:09pm:

Here is an aerial view of the plant's location in West.