30 to 40 Believed Missing After Fertilizer Plant Explosion

State authorities back away from estimate of up to 15 fatalities

A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant ripped through a small Texas town Wednesday night, creating a powerful shock wave that flattened homes, smashed out windows and could be felt as far as 80 miles away.

The blast ripped through the West Fertilizer Co. shortly before 8 p.m., injuring more than 160 people.

Early Thursday morning, reports put the fatalities as high as five to 15, but authorities later backed away from any estimate.

"I can confirm that we do have fatalities. ... I just don't have a count for you at this time," Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said.

However, the mayor of West told NBC News that one fatality had been confirmed. In a phone interview Thursday, Mayor Tommy Muska said there are "30 to 40 missing people, including five firefighters."

Muska said only one fatality had been confirmed, but he could not say if it was a firefighter.

Later Thursday, Dallas Fire-Rescue said one of its off-duty firefighters, Capt. Kenny Harris, was among those killed. Harris — a 52-year-old married father of three grown sons — lived in West and had decided to lend a hand to the volunteers battling the blaze.

Family members also told NBC 5 DFW that two volunteer firefighters, Morris Bridges and Buck Uptmor, were killed in the blast.

Muska told NBC News that it was possible some of the missing "could be in a hospital, but said the death toll "figure will be in that area" of 30 to 40.

Blast "flattens" area around plant

"[There was] just fire everywhere — bodies on the ground, bloody bodies, people in panic," witness Sammy Chavez said. "Firemen, firetrucks, police cars filled the town."

Volunteer firemen from the West fire department initially responded to a fire at 7:30 p.m. at West Fertilizer Co. Six volunteer firemen responded to the fire, recognized the potential for an explosion and began evacuating nearby homes and businesses, Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said.

"We need your prayers," Muska said late Wednesday night. "There's a lot of people that got hurt. There's a lot of people, I'm sure, will not be here tomorrow."

First responders worked through the night to evacuate residents and conduct door-to-door welfare checks on residents living in the blast area. Witnesses said several nearby buildings — including a high school, a nursing home and an apartment building — were severely damaged. The nursing home's 133 residents were safely evacuated, officials said.

Thursday morning, Swanton said a significant area near the facility had been flattened and that "part of that community is gone."

He said that there was no indication that the blast was anything other than an industrial accident.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area, saying it's been a "tragic, difficult 16 hours for all of us."

Through the night, firefighters struggled to contain the blaze because of toxic fumes. Officials worried that an unexploded tank that continued to vent gas could cause another explosion. But by Thursday morning, officials said that while the fire continued to smolder, they were no longer worried about another explosion.

Watch video from Chopper 5 over West in the video player above.

Injured Transported to Hospitals in DFW, Waco, Temple

Late Wednesday, Trooper D.L. Wilson said that more than 100 people were injured. Thursday morning, that number has nearly doubled with at least 167 people being treated at hospitals in Waco, Temple, Dallas and Fort Worth.

Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco treated more than 100 patients, three of whom remain in critical condition, the hospital said Thursday morning. More than 50 people were treated and released by emergency medical staff, but five were admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and another 28 were admitted. Two children were transported to McLane's Children's Hospital in Temple.

Officials with Hillcrest Baptist reported no fatalities and said five surgeries were performed on blast victims. Some patients, officials said, needed fertilizer decontamination, including irrigation of the eyes. The hospital, a Level 2 Trauma Center, said it was still on standby to receive more patients if needed.

Providence Hospital, also in Waco, received 65 patients. Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas confirmed that it was treating two people injured in the West explosion. One arrived by helicopter, and other was transported by ambulance, the hospital said. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth confirmed Wednesday night that one patient was sent their way. Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, a Level-1 Trauma Center, said it received three patients.

The extent of their injuries was not immediately available. Word on the patients' conditions was expected to be released at some time Thursday.

Plant cited for what appeared to be minor safety, permitting violations

The explosion was apparently touched off by a fire, but there was no indication of what sparked the blaze. The company had been cited by regulators for what appeared to be minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.

The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.

In a risk-management plan filed with the Environmental Protection Agency about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.

State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it's not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006, said Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance.

That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit, said the commission's executive director Zak Covar. He said no other complaints had been filed with the state since then, so there haven't been additional inspections.

A woman who answered the phone at the home of plant owner Don R. Adair said he wasn't feeling well and would not be available for comment.

NBC 5 has crews on the scene and, as this story is developing, elements may change. NBC 5's Ben Russell, Omar Villafranca, Scott Gordon, Ray Villeda and Andres Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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