Texas explosion: 160+ injured; 5-15 dead, including emergency workers

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Police now estimate 5 to 15 people are dead after a huge explosion in West, Texas.

During a 5:30 a.m. news conference, Waco Police Sergeant Patrick Swanton confirms at least two of the deaths are emergency workers who were at the plant fighting a fire when the explosion happened.

"I can confirm that we are still missing several firefighters that were on the scene firefighting the fire."

More than 160 people are injured, and rescue crews are still pulling people out of homes and buildings around the West Fertilizer Company Plant. We know 700 emergency responders have converged on the scene.

The cause of the explosion is unclear, officers are not sure if this is an accident or a criminal act.

"This is a crime scene. We are not indicating that it is a crime but we don't know, what that means to us is until we know it was an industrial accident, we will work it as crime scene," Swanton told reporters.

While Sergeant Swanton is confirming the two deaths of firefighters, he says it will be longer to confirm if there are other deaths.

"The casualty numbers, I don't have a hard number to give to you at this point, they are still working on that, I can tell you it is estimated anywhere from 5 to 15 at this point. I know that's a rough estimate, but that's the best that I can give you."

During an earlier news conference, he said first responders are still in the process of evacuating people from their homes. 

"At this time we are still trying to evacuate some of the homes we are going house to house business to business and we're seeing quite a bit of devastation in that area. What they're trying to do is move people away still, they're having to be very cautious because there is structural damage to homes and to businesses we have to be very cautious because of there being gas lines gas mains our utility systems are here they have entered the area and are cutting off the main flow of gas natural gas, they're cutting off power so we don't have secondary fires electricity sparked fires things along that line."

"I just talked to my commander who is on the ground there in the scene, he is telling me he has seen extreme devastation in homes, in some of the businesses, they are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes. At this point we don't know a number that have been killed, I will confirm there have been fatalities. I think we will see those fatalities increase as we get towards the morning." 

Another news conference is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. Central Time. We hope to have more confirmed at that time.

Firefighters were already at the plant battling a fire when the explosion happened Wednesday night. It was so strong it could be felt from 45 miles away, and sent flames shooting high into the night sky, raining burning embers, shrapnel and debris.

"I can tell you that the mayor has been here earlier tonight he is also a firefighter for this city, it has taken a toll on him because he knows that he's potentially lost some firefighters, I can confirm there may be firefighters that are unaccounted for and potentially a law enforcement officer as well, we're still trying to determine that," said Swanton.

Texas NBC affiliate coverage: KXAS-TV | KCEN-TV

The explosion has also leveled buildings for blocks in every direction. Al Vanek, a city council member, says a four-block area around the explosion "is totally decimated."

West Mayor Tommy Muska said at a news conference that there was a fire at the West Fertilizer plant before Wednesday night's explosion.

"The blast took out about a five-block radius around the fertilizer plant," Muska told CNN.

Some of damaged buildings are a housing complex with a collapsed roof, a nearby middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, where first-responders evacuated more than 130 patients.

"Approximately 50 to 60 houses in a five-block area, radius were damaged. Heavily damaged. West Rest Haven, located a couple of blocks from the fertilizer plant was in the process of being evacuated due to the fire when the explosion occurred. The rest home, nursing home, has evacuated and taken all patients out to safe locations. All residents in that area have been evacuated and are in safe locations," Muska said during the 6:30 news conference.

First responder Dr. George Smith was bloodied when he spoke to reporters, "It's Just overwhelming to us for a town of 2,400. We have only three ambulances. We have 100s of people hurt."

We are told deputies in the town had to transport victims to hospitals in their squad cars.

"Most of the houses are in bad shape. The ambulance building is destroyed," said Smith, "We're getting support, the main thing now is getting support. We're going to need some heavy equipment."

"It's like an earthquake, all the buildings are gone. We're going need some search teams in here to get the people out. It's a true disaster situation."

Residents who have not evacuated are being told to stay indoors because of the threat of new explosions or leaks of ammonia from the plant.

West, Texas resident Sammy Chavez said he was watching the fire when the explosion rocked the town.

"I just saw the explosion, and then after that, I took off running. And then I saw the rest home. And people were buried under the West Home. Yeah, and just evacuating the rest home, helping them, getting the critical ones to the hospital here... It was just crazy. The school is gone, the apartments are gone. It's horrible."

In addition to the explosion, officials are worried about a storm system that is possible of creating tornados. Emergency crews say winds from that storm could spread the toxic fumes into another area of town, posing a second threat.

West is a town of about 2,500 people just north of Waco.  The explosion could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles away. A nearby resident said the blast was like being in a tornado because "stuff was flying everywhere." Debbi Marak says her windshield was blown out.

Explosion caught on camera (YouTube)
American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site.

People can call the following emergency number for information on family and loved ones: 254-202-1100.

American Red Cross - Central Texas Chapter

(The Associated Press and KXAS contributed to this story.)