(USA TODAY) - A huge explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, left as many as 15 people dead and 160 injured as the earthquake-level blast sent fire and embers into the air and leveled scores of homes in a four-block area, police said Thursday.
The blast, which rocked the ground with the force of a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, could be felt as far as 45 miles away.
Officials said there was no initial indication that the blast was anything but an industrial accident, although ATF agents will be investigating.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday that the death toll is only an estimate as search and rescue operations continued in this north-central Texas town 80 miles south of Dallas.
Five to six volunteer firefighters were battling the initial blaze at the plant when the explosion erupted. Not all of them have been accounted for, according to Mayor Tommy Muska. Local EMS director Dr. George Smith confirmed that two paramedics were among the fatalities, WFAA-TV reported.
Swanton said at a mid-morning news briefing that one of the firefighters, who is also a law enforcement officer, has been located at a hospital. He said the unidentified officer had "serious injuries."
The emergency teams had responded to a 7:29 p.m. CT fire call. The explosion occurred 24 minutes later, as the firefighters, police and paramedics were attempting to clear the area move out nearby residents.
"The injuries that we are seeing are very serious,'' said Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. "There are a number of patients that will be going to surgery ... It's a very, very unfortunate situation.''
Robinson said that 10 or 12 of the injured were in critical condition. Two people were in surgery as he spoke and two more were awaiting surgery, he said.
As a storm front moved into the area Thursday morning, teams were still going house to house in this small farming community of 2,800 looking for survivors. First-responders to the West Rest Haven Nursing home, which was heavily damaged, removed 133 residents, many in wheelchairs.
Swanton said that it was a good sign that emergency teams were still, at mid-morning, in a "search and rescue" mode because it indicated that they still hope to find more survivors.
Robinson said an unknown number of people with minor injuries were being treated at a triage center set up by emergency medical personnel at a triage center set up at a nearby high school football field
The blast and ball of fire that followed reduced a middle school home to rubble and seriously damaged least 50 houses. A 50-unit apartment building was reduced to a "skeleton," according to one state trooper.
Swanton said the scene looked like the aftermath of a tornado, where one house was left standing alongside one that was leveled.
Texas Trooper D.L. Wilson said the damage was comparable to the destruction caused by the 1995 bomb blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Muska, the mayor, urged residents to stay indoors as protection from the possibility of chemical fumes in the area, about 20 miles north of Waco in North Central Texas.
Wilson, the trooper, said half the town had been evacuated due to damage or the threat posed by the fumes.
"When that northwind changes, we might have to evacuate the other side of town,'' Wilson said.
Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement that his office was monitoring events. "We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities," the statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."
A person looks on as emergency workers fight a house fire after a nearby fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday in West, Texas.(Photo: Rod Aydelotte, AP)
KWTX.com reported state troopers transported some of the injured to hospitals in patrol cars.
"We've been sending out troopers left and right,'' Moore said.
Of the first 45 patients to arrive at Hillcrest, 25 of them came by private vehicle and 20 by ambulance, Robinson said.
Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Perry's office, said personnel from several agencies were en route to West or already there, 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.
In 2001, an explosion at a chemical plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.