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Death toll rising in firestorm at Texas fertilizer plant; sabotage discounted (+video)

First responders on Thursday continue to search buildings near a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, site of a fire and huge explosion that rocked the town Wednesday night. 'Like a nuclear bomb' is how the town's mayor described the blast.

By Staff writer / April 18, 2013

The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas, early on April 18. The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on Wednesday, injuring more than 100 people, leveling dozens of homes and damaging other buildings nearby.

Mike Stone/Reuters

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Almost as soon as firefighters arrived to battle a major fire at a large fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, on Wednesday night, a large tank of ammonia blew “like a nuclear bomb,” injuring more than 100 people and killing and hurting several first responders, including volunteer firefighters.

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With the sun just coming up over the Texas prairies, it’s too early to know the full extent of the destruction. So far, authorities have counted 160 injuries and several dead. But the search and rescue operation could yield as many as 60 more casualties, authorities feared.

West Mayor Tommy Muska described the blast as “like a nuclear bomb … big old mushroom cloud,” and McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara likened the scene to a “war zone.” Authorities on Thursday morning are still conducting house-to-house searches. They were able to evacuate most of a retirement home near the plant before the explosion.

Among the injured is the son of Jonny Payne, proprietor of a local funeral home. Her son, a volunteer firefighter, suffered several broken bones in the blast and remained in the hospital on Thursday morning, she said. Local officials said several volunteer firemen were inside the fertilizer plant when the tank exploded.

“The plant’s on the other end of the town and my house shook, yes, it did, it shook my house,” said Ms. Payne in a phone interview. “My friend’s staying with me right now because her house was destroyed, everything blown out.”

The site of the conflagration is just north of Waco, Texas, and Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told reporters there’s no evidence that the blast was anything more sinister than an industrial accident. Federal authorities are on site to investigate, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Rep. Bill Flores, whose congressional district includes the town of West, told CNN: “I would not expect sabotage by any stretch of the imagination.”

The company that owns West Fertilizer Co. reported recently to the Environmental Protection Agency that its facility presented no risk for fire or explosion, according to the Dallas Morning News, and that a worst-case scenario would be a short release of ammonia gas that would be harmless.

But the mere facts that the fire involved some of the same raw products used to build the Oklahoma City bomb that detonated April 19, 1995, and that it occurred just a dozen miles from the site of the 1993 Waco siege, which ended 20 years ago on April 20 in the fiery deaths of 82 Branch Davidians and four federal agents, added to the national unease that began Monday when twin bombs ripped through crowds near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

On Wednesday, moreover, a Mississippi man was arrested in relation to a series of ricin-laced letters to Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi and President Obama. The suspect, Kevin Paul Curtis, is a celebrity impersonator who allegedly has written numerous letters to Senator Wicker and other legislators about an employment case. “I am KC and I approve this message,” the powder-laced letters read, according to news reports.

The Wednesday night blast in West registered as a magnitude-2.1 seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey, and shook windows as far as 50 miles away. The town of West has just over 2,000 residents. It was incorporated in 1892 by Czech immigrants and is still known for its Czech festivals, bakeries, and restaurants. Willie Nelson Road runs right past the town, and the iconic singer tweeted on Wednesday night: “West has been in my backyard all my life. My heart is praying for the community that we call home.”

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