Investigators recovered the bodies of 12 people today after an enormous Texas fertilizer plant explosion demolished surrounding neighborhoods for blocks and left more about 200 other people injured, officials said.
Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said it was “with a heavy heart” that he confirmed officials pulled 12 bodies from the area of the plant explosion.
Even before investigators released a confirmed number of fatalities, the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800 and a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the plant to battle a pre-explosion blaze was believed to be among them.
Reyes said he could not confirm how many of those killed were first responders.
One victim whose name was released was Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived south of West. He was off duty at the time but responded to the fire to help, according to a statement from the city of Dallas.
While authorities spent much of the day after Wednesday night’s blast searching the town for survivors, they are also looking into just what went wrong at the plant.
Rescuers continue to comb through the rubble house by house and one official said, “part of that community is gone.”
Police initially said between 5 to 15 people died during the massive blast at West Fertilizer. The explosion occurred around 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, a town located 45 miles north. It sent flames spiraling high into the evening sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on frightened residents.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Thursday night the impact of the explosion was worse than he expected. “The devastation is immense,” he said. But, he added the other thing he saw while touring West was “the sign of hope” and “the beginnings of a community trying to piece itself back together.”
A member of the city council, Al Vanek, said a four-block area around the explosion was “totally decimated.” Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city’s Murrah Federal Building.
The USGS reported that the blast registered a magnitude 2.1, which is comparable to a minor earthquake.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is sending a national response team to the site. ATF spokeswoman Franceska Perot said Thursday the unit includes fire investigators, explosives experts, chemists and canine units.
The main fire was under control as of 11 p.m., Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said, but residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant’s ruins.
At least three people were in critical condition at hospitals in Texas. Two of the three patients at Scott & White Hospital-Temple were in critical condition Thursday. One of the two patients at McLane Children’s Scott & White Hospital in Temple was in critical.
A spokesman at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco said the facility received 98 patients, including the five in intensive care. Another 30 have serious injuries, including orthopedic and head trauma. Providence Health Center in Waco treated 65 patients from the explosion, admitting 12. A spokeswoman says those patients had broken bones, cuts, head injuries, minor burns and some breathing problems.
Two patients were also being treated at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.
Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said he had no details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.