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Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

An explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant Wednesday night in West, Tex.

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Cleanup is underway in Texas after fertilizer explosionWEST, Texas (CNN)-

The fertilizer plant that blew up in Texas last week warned state and local officials but not federal agencies that it had 270 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate on site, according to regulatory records.

The April 17 fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Co. killed 14 people and devastated the small town of West, Texas. Investigators have said they’re not sure how much ammonium nitrate was actually on site at the time of the explosion, however, since plant records were destroyed in the blast.

The company sold ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, both commonly used as fertilizers. It had notified state and local emergency management officials of its stock of both in its most recent declaration of hazardous chemicals, filed in February.

However, the risk management plan it filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 mentioned only anhydrous ammonia, which produces suffocating fumes and can cause burns if mishandled. The plan listed as a worst-case scenario “the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes” and did not warn of the risks of explosion.

Federal law requires any operation that holds more than a ton of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate to report that stock to the Department of Homeland Security. Proposed new rules would cut that to 25 pounds. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that West Fertilizer doesn’t appear to have reported its ammonium nitrate stock to federal officials, adding, “We’re following up on that.”

In a statement issued earlier this week, after the first lawsuit against it was filed in connection with the explosion, the company said its focus “remains on the fact finding.”

“We continue to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community,” it said. “To that end, the owners and staff of West Fertilizer Co. are working closely with investigating agencies. We have encouraged all employees to assist in the fact finding to whatever degree possible.”

Among the dead was plant foreman Cody Dragoo, who was also a member of the town’s volunteer fire department.

The explosion happened about 20 minutes after the first report of a fire there. It registered on seismographs as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake and could be felt 50 miles away.

Last week’s explosion damaged numerous houses, a nursing home and the town’s high school and middle school, all of which were built within a few hundred feet of the plant. That’s raised concern about similar facilities in other towns, both in rural communities like West and major cities like Houston, the heart of the oil industry.

“I know there’s hundreds of public schools on the fenceline or very close to these industrial plants,” said Neil Carman, a former Texas Department of Environmental Quality inspector now working for the state Sierra Club. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over 1,000.”

Zoning restrictions are rare in the state, and Carman said there have been thousands of complaints from neighborhoods in areas like Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi, home to numerous oil refineries.

West Fertilizer had been twice cited by federal regulators twice since 2006.

In 2012, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for storing anhydrous ammonia in tanks that lacked the proper warning labels. The agency originally recommended a $10,000 penalty, but it was reduced after the company took corrective action.

In 2006, the EPA fined it $2,300 owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time. The TCEQ also investigated a complaint about the lingering smell of ammonia around the plant the same year.

By Matt Smith

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Gov. Rick Perry Touring Explosion

Gov. Rick Perry today toured the disaster zone in West, Texas and met with local officials and state and local emergency responders about relief and recovery efforts underway. (Gov. Perry’s Office)

WEST, Texas (CNN)-

One by one, the beleaguered townspeople of West, Texas, filed into local churches Sunday to begin the healing process, following last week’s deadly blast at the nearby West Fertilizer Co. plant.

As parishioners streamed out of St. Mary’s Catholic Church after Sunday’s service, Father Boniface Onjefu hugged and consoled his congregants, and gave reassuring smiles and high fives to the church’s youngest members.

“West is a strong city. We shall definitely overcome this tragedy,” Onjefu told those assembled at his church, about a mile from the explosion site. Several members of St. Mary’s were killed or injured battling the blaze, Onjefu told CNN.

The church’s parking lot has become a staging area, of sorts, for police and first responders who have flooded the north central Texas community since Wednesday’s explosion that killed 14 people.

Search and rescue efforts have evolved into search and recovery efforts, because officials don’t expect to find any more victims in the wreckage — alive or dead.

The explosion at West Fertilizer’s plant ruined much of the north side of town, and left hundreds of people injured, homeless and in need of help.

On television nationally, the scope of the tragedy was overshadowed by the dramatic events in New England, as investigators there pursued leads in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, then pursued their suspects.

But many Texans kept their focus on the great need close to home. Long lines of cars streamed by the community center, dropping off food, water and other rations throughout the weekend. Numerous church groups and restaurants handed out hot meals.

“These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco Police Department Sgt. William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

The nine first responders from West who died battling the blaze represented nearly one-third of the town’s volunteer firefighting and EMT force. The fire destroyed two fire trucks and an ambulance. Firefighters and trucks from neighboring communities now fill the void at the West firehouse.

At Sunday’s emotional church service in this farming town of fewer than 3,000 residents, the priest told congregants his personal recollection of Wednesday’s horror. He had just returned to the rectory when he heard the blast.

“I thought it was an earthquake,” Onjefu said. The lights flickered on and off as his small two-story brick residence shook from the explosion, he added.

Onjefu said that when he headed outside, he immediately noticed a large, dark plume of smoke rising in the sky on the north side of town. He got into his car and drove toward the smoke.

The priest was one of the first to arrive in the destroyed part of town. He immediately began helping remove victims from a severely damaged nursing home. The town’s high school and middle school, also close to the fertilizer plant, sustained heavy damage as well.

Onjefu said that since the blast, he has witnessed “fear in the eyes” of people walking the streets of West.

Many churchgoers trying to fathom the destruction have asked Onjefu for answers about why the plant exploded.

“I guess it could have been worse,” an elderly church member told him as he left the Sunday service.

Onjefu smiled and agreed, reminding the man of his sermon, which noted that rains and winds in the area had helped tame the blaze, and kept the poisonous cloud of fumes away from the center of town.

Evacuated townspeople began returning home late Saturday to begin what promises to be a massive cleanup effort. Authorities allowed a second wave to revisit their homes Sunday.

The process “is going well and orderly,” with “very few hiccups,” said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro tem. Adult residents are being allowed in until 7 p.m., under the supervision of Texas state police, he said.

A strict curfew and heavy state police presence control the areas cordoned off near the site — almost the entire north side of town.

The cause of the fire and explosion has not been determined yet, but investigators have isolated the center of the blast, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said Sunday. The explosion left a large crater in the middle of the plant, Kistner said.

Funeral arrangements are pending for those killed. But Vanek said Sunday that Baylor University, 20 miles away in Waco, will host a memorial service for first responders at 2 p.m. Thursday. So far, 10 of the 14 casualties have been identified as first responders, including a Dallas firefighter.

In Hillsboro, Texas, about 15 miles from West, hotels and storefront windows displayed fliers celebrating the life of firefighter Jerry Chapman, who was killed fighting the blaze, an indication that the mourning and sense of grief go far beyond the close-knit community of West.

CNN’s Todd Sperry reported from West, Texas; CNN’s Martin Savidge, John Murgatroyd and Eric Fiegel contributed to this report from West, Texas; CNN’s Matt Smith and Mark Morgenstein contributed from Atlanta.

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Texas, west, waco, explosion, fertilizer,

A massive explosion hit a fertilizer plant 18 miles north of Waco, Texas on Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Courtesy: Rob Gray

WEST, Texas (CNN)-

Twelve bodies have been recovered in West, Texas, Sgt. Jason Reyes said Friday, two days after a fiery explosion ripped through the heart of the close-knit central Texas town.

Sixty people are unaccounted for, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Friday. He said authorities are checking to see whether any of them are in hospitals.

Reyes said 200 people have been injured and 50 homes have been destroyed.

“This is still being treated as a crime scene,” Reyes said.

Many questions remain about the fire and an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, which badly damaged a five-block area.

What caused the blast, so deafening its ground motion registered as an earthquake?

How many people died and how many were pulled from the charred rubble alive?

Was it the result of criminal activity?

Despite the flurry of questions, one thing is certain. The effect on the small town of West — population 2,800 — is massive.

The fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night leveled buildings, ripped up walls and threw people on the ground blocks away. About half the town was evacuated, including a nursing home with 133 residents.

It was still unclear early Friday what the exact number of casualties was. Officials are treading cautiously on providing specific numbers on victims, but fire officials confirmed some deaths among their crew.

Five West firefighters, one Dallas firefighter and four emergency responders were killed, the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas said in a statement Thursday.

So far 150 buildings have been searched and cleared, with more left to search, CNN’s Martin Savidge reported. The structures are weakened, and need to be shored up before they can be searched.

Three firetrucks and one EMS truck were also destroyed.

The blast stunned residents and left behind a trail of charred devastation in the small town.

“There’s no way I would have ever dreamed that this would have happened,” paramedic Bryce Reed told CNN’s “AC360°.”

“I mean, it’s profound and it’s dire, and it hurts like hell,” he said. “But, you know, the main thing we wanted to convey is that … please keep the prayers coming. Please keep the thoughts coming.”

When he responded to the scene, it left him speechless, Reed said.

“I can tell you there’s absolutely no words that I possess that can convey adequately what I saw,” he said. “It went from my hometown and my reality and my existence to a war zone in an instant, and I haven’t even had time to process that yet.”

He lost some friends, all volunteer emergency workers, just like him.

“People who didn’t have to go to that blast, went to that blast,” he said. “People who could have stayed at home, they didn’t have to go. … they were all volunteers.”

Authorities are still scouring the area for survivors — and answers.

“We still are holding out some hope,” Mayor Tommy Muska said. He said the number of casualties may rise.

The area around the site of remains “very volatile” because of the presence of ammonium nitrate, according to Matt Cawthon, chief deputy sheriff of McLennan County. Ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer composed of ammonia and nitrogen, is also a component of explosives widely used in mining.

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

Brad Smith felt his house shake. It’s 50 miles away from the plant.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Local authorities are working with federal officials, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to determine the cause of the deadly explosion.

Though there are no indications of criminal activity, Swanton said, it has not been ruled out yet.

It’s unclear whether the plant had safety problems. But in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Seven years ago, the company had a complaint against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and about 20 miles north of Waco.

The blast came as the nation remains on edge following the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday that killed three and left about 180 injured.

It also coincided almost exactly with the 20th anniversary of a fire in Waco that ended a federal agents’ siege against members of the Branch Davidian sect. More than 80 sect members and some federal agents died.

That anniversary is Friday.

By Faith Karimi, Greg Botelho, Josh Levs and Lateef Mungin

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Apartment complex destroyed by fertilizer plant explosion

A volunteer firefighter posted this image to Twitter of a 50-unit apartment complex that was destroyed by an explosion at a nearby fertilizer plant in West, Tex.

WEST, Texas (CNN)-

Twelve bodies have been recovered in West, Texas, Sergeant Jason Reyes said Friday.

West is where a fire and an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday badly damaged a five-block area.

Reyes said 200 people have been injured and 50 homes have been destroyed. “This is still being treated as a crime scene,” he said.

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STOCKTON-

The Stockton Fire Department trains for the possibility of a chemical-related incident, and will learn lessons from the explosion in the small Texas town of West.

The Port of Stockton sees its share of chemicals coming in. Those chemicals are distributed to businesses across the San Joaquin Valley.

Running drills to prepare for a potential disaster is important for the department. It’s something it does every other year.

Apartment complex destroyed by fertilizer plant explosion

A volunteer firefighter posted this image to Twitter of a 50-unit apartment complex that was destroyed by an explosion at a nearby fertilizer plant in West, Tex.

WEST, Texas (CNN)-

Some 35 people — including 10 first responders — died in an massive explosion Wednesday night at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Mayor Tommy Muska said, according to USA Today.

The number included five volunteer fire fighters, four emergency responders and an off-duty fire fighter from Dallas who lived in West, the mayor told the newspaper.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings identified the off-duty fire fighter as Kenny Harris, a captain in his city’s fire department. Harris “rushed to the scene as a helper,” Rawlings said on Twitter.

Officials at news conferences in West were unwilling to give any numbers on victims. They have only confirmed there have been casualties.

Earlier, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton estimated there were five to 15 people who died.

George Smith, West’s director of emergency services, has said the death toll could spike to 60 or 70.

More than 160 people were injured.

Residents packed the Church of the Assumption in West on Thursday night to remember those who died and to pray for the survivors.

Glenn Robinson, the head of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco where many victims were taken, said 29 patients were still hospitalized, including five that were in the intensive care unit.

The area around the site of the massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that flattened much of the small Texas town remains “very volatile” due to the presence of ammonium nitrate, McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said Thursday.

Authorities searched through mounds of rubble in hopes of finding survivors of the blast that left shattered homes and wreckage in a wide swath of the town, which has only 2,800 people.

“It’s overwhelming to us,” said Smith. As he spoke to CNN affiliate KCEN, blood was spattered on his face from injuries he suffered.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” said Mayor Tommy Muska.

Muska told CNN on Thursday afternoon that emergency officials were still combing through a nearby nursing home, apartment complex and the plant looking for survivors.

“We still are holding out some hope, but right now we’re just trying to get a hand around it and see,” he said.

At the same time he said he realized the casualty count might rise as the number of missing falls.

“We’ve got the best of the best looking, and that’s what we want to do,” he said. “I want to count up all my citizens and all my firefighters.”

On Wednesday evening, a fire at the plant suddenly exploded with a huge, deafening bang, throwing people to the ground blocks away.

About half the town was evacuated, including the nursing home with 133 residents.

Three schools also are near the plant. Classes weren’t in session when the explosion happened Wednesday night.

‘Roof came in on me’

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air, followed by a plume of smoke bigger than the plant itself. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It was “massive — just like Iraq, just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department, referring to a bombing that took place 18 years ago Friday.

The blast stripped the apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows. “It was just a skeleton standing up,” Wilson said.

“The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came,” Smith said.

Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area sustained damage, officials said.

Pastor Lester Adams said he met with a family that was shattered by the explosion. The mother had part of her ankle missing and her feet were crushed, he said. Her daughter had cuts and her son had to get six “staples” in the back of his head.

“They went to check and see what was going on. They went out in front yard and (the) blast came from the back,” he told CNN affiliate WOAI. “If they’d stayed in the house they would have probably been killed because their house collapsed.”

Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and felt his house shake.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Cause unknown

As of Thursday afternoon, authorities had not determined what led to the deadly explosion. Cawthon said his sheriff’s office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the state fire marshal’s office are working “to determine the exact cause of the situation.”

Swanton said earlier there were no indications of criminal activity but that wasn’t being ruled out yet.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters “it’s way premature” to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.

A U.S. intelligence official told CNN there is no indication so far that the blast is related to terrorism.

While state authorities are leading the investigation, the federal government is assisting.

Chemical concerns

With help from heavy rains early Thursday, firefighters managed to quell most of the flames in the area, authorities said.

The rain and heavy winds also helped dissipate chemicals that may have been released.

Swanton emphasized that there was no cause for alarm about the air. There was no “chemical escape” that is “out of control,” he said.

Anhydrous ammonia, a gas used in making fertilizer, can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But doctors reported that the injuries they were treating, in general, came from the blast, not chemical exposure. Many people had cuts and puncture wounds.

The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.

Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week and said after that, they will probably depend on temporary buildings and schools in other districts for a while.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town’s chamber of commerce touts it as “the Czech point of central Texas.”

Czech immigrants arrived in the town in the 1880s, and the community still maintains strong ties to its Central European roots, with businesses named “Little Czech Bakery” and “The Czech Inn.”

Worst-case scenario

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems, an EPA spokesman told CNN.

David Gray said the company certified that it had fixed the deficiencies, which included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Also in 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in 2011 in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant’s report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that dire: There would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

What happened Wednesday night was much worse.

CNN’s Joe Sutton, Jamie Morrison, Pam Benson, Chandler Friedman, Carma Hassan, Ed Payne, Greg Botelho, Amanda Watts, Jake Carpenter, Tina Burnside, Dave Alsup, Tanika Gray, Darrell Calhoun, Ryan Rios, Alta Spells, Travis Sattiewhite and Christabelle Fombu contributed to this report.

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SACRAMENTO-

A fire, then a massive explosion with several believed dead and even more injured in a town near Waco, Tex., and what they say is responsible agriculture fertilizer.

“It’s one of the best, cheapest crop nourishments for agriculture. It’s also used in the mining and construction industry as an explosive,” Sac Metro Fire Assistant Chief Walt White said Thursday.

Ammonia nitrate is a fertilizer that combines ammonia and nitric acid. The fertilizer itself doesn’t pose a threat of spontaneous combustion but if introduced to a heat source, like fire, it’s deadly.

“The fertilizer is actually what Timothy McVeigh used in a large quality in a rented U-Haul-type truck to blow up the the federal building in Oklahoma City,” said White.

One of the reasons White says it’s so flammable is the powder and crystal-like form it’s made into.

“The fact that it is so granular and is like a powder, it’s got massive surface area exposure when it blows. It’s extremely volatile,”said White.

Which is why, in the past, White says some terrorists have used it in bombs. It’s also why many hardware stores refuse to sell it.

“You definitely want to make sure you store it way from ignition sources or any where you have fuel oils,” said White.

West Sacramento has a fertilizer company, but that company specifically chose not to make or keep Ammonia nitrate on their property because of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

“People’s safety is much more important to us than the business aspects of the stuff. We just felt it was in the best interest of the people we serve, our community, farmers, et cetera, to not have the stuff around,” said Bobby Franklin, with Agrium.

Agrium produces their product with a different formula than what exploded Wednesday in Texas.

“We store urea here. It’s a form of that. It’s a more stable form, a more safer form,” said Franklin.

Apartment complex destroyed by fertilizer plant explosion

A volunteer firefighter posted this image to Twitter of a 50-unit apartment complex that was destroyed by an explosion at a nearby fertilizer plant in West, Tex.

WEST, Texas (CNN)-

The area around the site of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that flattened much of a small Texas town remains “very volatile” due to the presence of ammonium nitrate, McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said Thursday.

Authorities searched through mounds of rubble Thursday in hopes of finding survivors of the blast that left shattered homes and wreckage in a wide swath of West, Texas, a town of only 2,800 people.

“It’s overwhelming to us,” said George Smith, the town’s director of emergency services. As he spoke to CNN affiliate KCEN, blood was spattered on his face from injuries he suffered.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” said Mayor Tommy Muska.

Muska told CNN on Thursday afternon that emergency officials were still combing through a nearby nursing home, apartment complex and the plant looking for survivors.

“We still are holding out some hope, but right now we’re just trying to get a hand around it and see,” he said.

At the same time he said he realized the casualty count might rise as the number of missing falls.

“We’ve got the best of the best looking, and that’s what we want to do,” he said. “I want to count up all my citizens and all my firefighters.”

On Wednesday evening, a fire at the plant suddenly exploded with a huge, deafening bang, throwing people to the ground blocks away.

The blast came minutes after a fire began, so firefighters already had been drawn to the scene. Some may be among the dead, but the casualty count is unclear, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said, estimating that overall, five to 15 people may have lost their lives. Smith said the death toll could spike to 60 or 70. More than 160 people were injured.

“We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead,” Smith said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings on Thursday identified one of those killed as Kenny Harris, a captain in his city’s fire department. Harris lived in West and “rushed to the scene as a helper,” Rawlings said on Twitter.

About half the town was evacuated, including the nursing home with 133 residents. A middle school also is near the plant.

It measured as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey. Even 50 miles away, homes shook.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area.

‘Roof came in on me’

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air, followed by a plume of smoke bigger than the plant itself. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It was “massive — just like Iraq, just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department, referring to a bombing that took place 18 years ago Friday.

The blast stripped the apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows. “It was just a skeleton standing up,” Wilson said.

“The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came,” Smith said.

The town, he said, has only three ambulances.

Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area sustained damage, officials said.

“It, like, picked you up,” a woman told CNN affiliate WFAA. “It just took your breath away. And then it dropped you and it exploded everything around you. … It was like a suction, and then it just blew it all out. You could feel everything. You could feel it on your skin, your hair was being blown. It was crazy.”

She managed to cover one of her children, she said, and “grabbed my little one and dove through a door. It was chaos. All my windows blew out, my doors off the hinges. All I had were my keys in my hand, and I just threw the dog, everybody, in the car, and we took off.”

Video taken by college student Eric Perez — from what appeared to be a safe distance away from the fire, past a large field — shows the moment of the blast. In a split second, the fire over the plant bursts into into widespread destruction, knocking Perez over. Bright flames fill the sky.

Perez and his friends were playing basketball when they noticed the flames at the plant. “Nothing ever happens in our small town, so I recorded,” he said. “Then the explosion went off. We were thrown into the bed of my truck.”

One of his friends suffered a flash burn to his face and broken ribs. Another was burned on his arm and hit with flying shrapnel. A third had a cut to his face.

Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and felt his house shake.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Cause unknown

As of Thursday afternoon, authorities had not determined what led to the deadly explosion. Cawthon said his sheriff’s office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the state fire marshal’s office are working “to determine the exact cause of the situation.”

Swanton said earlier there were no indications of criminal activity but that wasn’t being ruled out yet.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters “it’s way premature” to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.

A U.S. intelligence official told CNN there is no indication so far that the blast is related to terrorism.

While state authorities are leading the investigation, the federal government is assisting.

The ATF has a team of 20 agents and forensic specialists assisting, a law enforcement source told CNN.

The Texas National Guard has sent 21 troops from a civil support team to monitor air quality near the blast, the Pentagon said Thursday.

The White House said it is monitoring the situation through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in touch with various agencies involved in the investigation.

Chemical concerns

With help from heavy rains early Thursday, firefighters managed to quell most of the flames in the area, authorities said.

The rain and heavy winds also helped dissipate chemicals that may have been released.

Swanton emphasized that there was no cause for alarm about the air. There was no “chemical escape” that is “out of control,” he said.

Anhydrous ammonia, a gas used in making fertilizer, can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But doctors reported that the injuries they were treating, in general, came from the blast, not chemical exposure. Many people had cuts and puncture wounds. Some were in critical condition.

Small, smoldering fires remained Thursday, but not enough to halt rescue efforts, police said.

There was one early report of possible looting, but no one was arrested, Swanton said.

The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.

Local rail freight service was also being closed to help secure the area, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said.

Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week and urged everyone to stay away from school property.

So many firefighters and medics descended on the town to help its all-volunteer force that the Texas public safety department said that no more assistance was needed.

“The firefighters and EMS people are coming from hundreds of miles away to help us,” said Wilson of the department. “Right now, we are overflowing with help. “

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town’s chamber of commerce touts it as “the Czech point of central Texas.”

Czech immigrants arrived in the town in the 1880s, and the community still maintains strong ties to its Central European roots, with businesses named “Little Czech Bakery” and “The Czech Inn.”

Worst-case scenario

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems, an EPA spokesman told CNN.

David Gray said the company certified that it had fixed the deficiencies, which included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Also in 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in 2011 in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant’s report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that dire: There would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

What happened Wednesday night was much worse.

By Josh Levs and Lateef Mungin

CNN’s Jamie Morrison, Pam Benson, Chandler Friedman, Carma Hassan, Ed Payne, Greg Botelho, Amanda Watts, Jake Carpenter, Tina Burnside, Dave Alsup, Tanika Gray, Darrell Calhoun, Ryan Rios, Alta Spells, Travis Sattiewhite and Christabelle Fombu contributed to this report.

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Paul and Bethany chat live on the phone with a spokesperson from the Texas Red Cross about what they are doing in the wake of the explosion near Waco.

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