A raging fire triggered a massive explosion at a fertilizer retail outlet in West, Tex., on Wednesday night. Initial reports count 160 people wounded and five to 15 dead. The immediate neighborhood around the site of the explosion was evacuated, and rescuers were sweeping through the area, house to house, looking for people.
Follow below for the developments through Thursday evening.
Courtney Adair, 20, a great-niece of the owner of the facility said the family is in shock.
"They don't know what to think or what's going to happen," she said in an interview.
Adair said the family can't fathom that anyone would have set the blaze on purpose, saying her great uncle has no enemies.
"Honestly, I think this was an accident," she said. "West is a small country town."
The day after a deadly explosion shook and scarred the small town of West, Tex., residents are trying to make sense of what happened: recalling their fear, noting the generosity of those offering help and coping with the wreckage left behind.
Bill Manolakis:to the Dallas Morning News: "That whole side of town looks like a disaster. Who in their right mind sticks a damn plant next to houses?"
In an interview with the Waco Tribune, Linda Goelzer, public relations director of Carter BloodCare, said she wasn't surprised by the day's strong turnout for blood donations.
“Central Texas is one of those points in our territory where when something happens, people show up,” Goelzer said.
The Tribune also interviewed longtime West Justice of the Peace David Pareya, whose home is close to the explosion site and was heavily damaged.
“All I’ve got is the clothes I have on and what’s in my pockets,” Pareya said. “I haven’t even changed clothes.”
In an interview with local news station KXXV, an unidentified man recounted how he tried to save another man from the wreckage shortly after the explosion:
When West Fertilizer caught fire, Tedd Uptmore, the longtime sales manager, jumped in his vehicle and started heading to the retail facility. But police stopped the 80-year-old before he got there.
“That probably saved his life,” said his son, John.
The son heard the explosion later at his house four miles outside West. He rushed to the scene and saw the destruction. “It’s flat now,” John Uptmore said in a telephone interview. He made his way through heavy dark smoke to help evacuate elderly residents from a nursing home.
“I helped move them to the community center. It was a disaster. There was a lot of glass. People had abrasions all over from the glass.”
Uptmore said he stayed about three hours, past 10 p.m., until officials told him that enough professionals had arrived to help. On the phone, Uptmore’s voice started to crack. He had visited the shop in the past, but he declined to describe its contents or how it looked then.
He said his father wouldn’t comment. “He’s not talking. He can’t. He’s devastated. The owner has to make that statement.”
Residents of rural West, Tex., which takes pride in its Czech roots, were dazed Thursday as the extent of the damage from an explosion at a fertilizer facility the night before started to become clear.
Wendy Maler, 37, who lives 750 feet from the facility, said her husband, David, a volunteer firefighter, urged her and their kids to evacuate as the fire started spreading. Barely five minutes after reaching her mother-in-law's house, just down the road, Maler said, the ground shook as a ball of fire shot into the sky.
"We just grabbed the kids and hit the ground," she said. David Maler, 47, was wounded as he tried to help put out the fire.
Their home was wrecked, Maler said. Windows were blown out, the sheetrock had crumbled and the doors had caved in.
"We were able to go into the house and get our wedding rings, but that was it," she said.
Last night's tragic explosion at a fertilizer retail facility in West, Tex., is already causing fury among critics who say that changes in zoning laws could have limited the scope of the disaster.
The back part of the facility, which the Dallas Morning News reported held up to 54,000 pounds of dangerous chemicals, bordered tennis courts and a public school. The school's football field, a large apartment complex and dozens of single-family homes also sat near the facility.
One local man commenting on Google+ said the playground is so close to West Fertilizer that he and his brother played in the shadow of "tanks and silos" as kids.
That, columnist Tod Robberson wrote in the Dallas Morning News, should make every town rethink its zoning rules.
"... Sometime soon, the state and federal governments will have to mandate a review of these decisions and others like them across rural America and take corrective action. We cannot have people living and going to school next to sub-nuclear time bombs."
Erik Loomis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Rhode Island, slammed state zoning policy: "Yes, that’s right, a fertilizer plant was placed in a neighborhood," he wrote in a blog post, adding: "a state with notoriously bad zoning and where capitalists are effectively allowed to do whatever they want is going to be a state where terrible things happen."
(Though Loomis called West Fertilizer a fertilizer plant, it is actually a retail facility that sells fertilizer directly to farmers.)
As Loomis noted and The Post reported, the school was evacuated in February because of a fire at the facility.
The Texas Department of Public Safety's situation report on the blasts at the fertilizer facility reveals the scale of the emergency response effort -- and the immensity of the clean-up to come.
The document lists more than a dozen state agencies mobilized in response to the explosions, including a hazmat team, a communications group working on cell capability and a team from the Animal Health Commission to handle deceased pets. Read the full report below.
While the search for victims continues in West, many are turning to the next task: rebuilding. On Twitter, residents of the small town and the surrounding area mourned the damage to homes and businesses and thanked strangers for their support.
Words can't describe how thankful we are for everyone from all over helping us out #GodIsGood
— Maxx Matus (@maxx_matus) April 18, 2013
It's hard to look at the positive things when your childhood is basically gone
— Addyson Foitek (@AddysonDeAnn) April 18, 2013
Jackson Kucera, who lives near the site of the blast at the fertilizer facility, tweeted:
So thankful I'm still alive after being right next to explosion! Thanks to everyone for the prayers #prayforwest
— Jackson Kucera (@jacksonkucera) April 18, 2013
Stacy Webre, a graduate student at Texas Southern, also said her house was destroyed in the blast.
I may not have my home anymore but I have my family and my faith. God bless our little town. #prayforWest
— Stacy Webre (@stacywebre) April 18, 2013
As the sun comes up, I hate to realize all the damage we will see today. It's time to rebuild, we must stick together. #prayforWest
— Stacy Webre (@stacywebre) April 18, 2013
Now, the town turns to recovery.
I'm so scared to see what all this turns out to look like. But we will build it back to the West, Tx we all know and love.
— Baylie Norman (@baylienorman) April 18, 2013
— Cole Anderson (@ColeTrain_4) April 18, 2013
Sarah Evans of Las Vegas was following news about the blast in West, Tex., on Wednesday night when she noticed that some commenters on Facebook and in news articles were offering housing assistance to those displaced.
That generosity gave her an idea about how she could help: by creating a centralized place for offering and getting such assistance. So, Evans created a Google doc and associated form to help coordinate volunteers and requests. She said she's trying to get word out about the spreadsheet to local media and the Red Cross, who she hopes will take ownership of the form she started to give it wider reach.
Evans said she has counted about 250 offers of assistance but that so far none has been marked as "accepted" on the spreadsheet. She also cautioned that people should "do due dilligence" when offering and accepting help through the spreadsheet.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday afternoon that the deadly explosion at a fertilizer outlet in West, Tex., "has mostly likely hit every family" in the community and called on the country to pray for those affected.
Speaking during a press conference in Austin, the governor said: "It's touched practically everyone in that town, so I ask all Texans and Americans to join me and Anita in keeping them in our prayers, and our first responders who may in some cases still be in harm's way as they work through their search and rescue operation."
Perry said that he had spoken to President Obama by phone and had requested a federal emergency declaration for McLennan County, which includes West and Waco.
The governor also said that the American Red Cross is coordinating information about people missing in the explosion. Anyone looking for information can dial 211.
Zak Covar, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told reporters that the site of the explosion was being monitored for contamination and that no health risks had been detected.
A public elementary school near the West Fertilizer facility that exploded Thursday had been evacuated back in February because of a fire at the plant, as school superintendent Marty Crawford wrote in a memo to staff and parents at West Intermediate School. Crawford said in the memo that the 911 dispatcher "did not acknowledge" that the retail facility "was carrying out a controlled burn of pallets and brush" and that "the district has asked emergency service providers for advanced notification in the future when the plant decided to conduct a burn." The memo did not say how the school, which serves fourth- and fifth-graders, learned or confirmed that the facility had been carrying out a "coordinated burn." His full memo is below.
This morning, West Intermediate School was evacuated temporarily because of a concerning fire from the fertilizer plant located near the school. The evacuation was executed in calm, but serious fashion, where students and staff eventually gathered at West Middle School for 30 minutes or so. The District and WIS were not notified ahead of time that the fertilizer plant was carrying out a controlled burn of pallets and brush.
WIS principal Rob Fleming alerted 911 of the fire, whose dispatcher did not acknowledge a coordinated burn. Mr. Fleming immediately initiated the evacuation procedure and Kevin Maler, West ISD’s Transportation Fleet Specialist, along with drivers plucked from campuses, safely coordinated and transported the WIS students to WMS. Students seriously followed directives during the evacuation and teachers and campus support staff were exceptionally professional in supervising and leading the children throughout the departure.
The District has asked emergency service providers for advanced notification in the future when the plant decides to conduct a burn. The District is also requesting the plant provide prior notification as well. The safety of our students and staff is a priority of the West Independent School District. We hope you understand our urgency in evacuating West Intermediate School temporarily this morning and we wanted to champion the effort of our WIS/WISD staff and students who were involved in the procedure this morning.