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14 killed in massive Texas fertilizer plant explosion


13:15, April 19, 2013

WEST, Texas, April 18 (Xinhua) -- The massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant on Wednesday had killed 14 people and injured more than 160 others, local authorities said Thursday.

The latest death toll was announced by Tommy Muska, mayor of the twon of West, where the fertilizer is located.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in downtown West, about 130 km south of Dallas, rocked the area with the strength of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake and leveled dozens of houses.

The explosion which occurred at about 8:00 p.m. Wednesday local time (0100 GMT Thursday) shot flames high into the night sky and dropped burning sparks and debris down on shocked and frightened residents of the town of 2,800 people.

At a press conference early Thursday, Waco Police spokesman William Swanton said that investigators had yet to determine the cause of the fire or blast.

"We are not indicating that it is a crime but we don't know," he said. "What that means to us is that until we know it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene."

Authorities had said earlier that between five and 15 people were likely killed in the blast but emphasized that was an early estimate as search and rescue operations remained underway. And the death toll could climb as the search continued.

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't gonna be here tomorrow," West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters, "We're gonna search for everybody. We're gonna make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."

He said that among the dead are four paramedics, meanwhile five volunteer firefighters are listed as missing and feared dead.

A fire broke out at the plant before the explosion and witnesses said evacuation in response to the fire was already underway when the blast happened. They said it sounded like a nuclear bomb and sent a big fireball into the air.

Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson told reporters that 50 to 75 houses were damaged by the explosion and fire and about half of the town, eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated.

Rescuers launched a door-to-door search overnight in the area near the explosion. Authorities are also worried there might be a second or a third fertilizer tank explosion.

"We might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if the winds shift, Wilson said.

Residents were urged to remain indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant's ruins, Wilson said.

A hazardous material team was deployed to the scene to cope with the high density of anhydrous ammonia as smoke and a pungent smell wafted in the air hours after the explosion.

According to media reports, three hospitals in Waco and Dallas were treating more than 160 people injured in the blast.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon of McLennan County said it is still a very volatile situation.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has declared McLennan County a disaster area, saying he would ask for federal disaster aid from President Barack Obama who flew to Boston for a memorial service for victims of the Boston bombings.

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