A raging fire, followed by a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in North Texas has devastated a small community. The plant is located in West, Texas, a small town of about 2,800 people, 18 miles north of Waco. As many as 60 homes and local businesses, including a nearby nursing home, were "severely damaged," with some residents killed or tapped inside. The explosion is also believed to have claimed the lives of several firefighters, EMTs, and other first responders who were on the scene to battle the initial blaze. The current estimate of casualties is pegged at 170 wounded and 5-15 people killed, although those numbers could rise dramatically. The federal Chemical Safety Board will look into the cause of the explosion, despite recent revelations that it's still tied up looking at the BP oil spill.

THE LATEST (6:33 p.m. ET): WFAA.com reports that Dallas Fire-Rescue has confirmed the death of Captain Kenny Harris.

Harris was not a volunteer firefighter for West but responded when he heard news of the fire that broke out Wednesday night at the plant, the statement read. Harris, 52, was a father of three grown sons.

(4:40 p.m. ET): The Wall Street Journal reports on new injury figures provided by West's Mayor Tommy Muska: "As many as 40 people may have died in a fertilizer-plant explosion here, including up to 10 emergency personnel." At a press conference, Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon confirmed that there have been fatalities, but did not provide a figure.

(3:02 p.m. ET): WFAA has one of the closest aerial shots of the blast crater.

(11:40 a.m. ET): More on ammonia and fertilizer. Regulators generally allow it to be stored in such large quantities because ammonia only ignites on 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant in West was cited back in 2006 when residents complained to state officials that there was a strong smell of ammonia leaking from the plant. However, a safety reported delivered to the EPA by plant stated there was no risk of fire or explosion.

(11:26 a.m. ET): To give you a sense of the devastation, here's a Google Street View image of the apartment building located just a few hundred yards from the fertilizer plant. 

Here's how it looks today (via AP):

Here's another house that's been completely obliterated. This video was shot by WFAA and reporter David Schechter. The map below shows you where the house was before it burned, and where it is in relation to the blast.


View Larger Map

(11:00 a.m.): More accounts are starting to emerge from witnesses and first responders. One man who helped rescue patients from the shattered nursing home says he pulled 16 people, some of whom were trapped under sheet rock when the ceiling collapsed.

The sheet rock was on top of patients. As quick as I could I could get that. The halls were in devastation … I pulled out 16 people. I carried two at one time to hurry up and try and get them out because I knew how bad it was.

There also this touching description of West from a former resident:

There are fatalities, and even though I haven’t seen a list, I’m quite sure I know at least one of the names. I’d be surprised if I didn’t. The town is too small and goes back too many generations. Every quote in every story is from someone I know ... The last time I was really there was in September, for my high school reunion. I took a long look around my old neighborhood, in the shadow of the fertilizer plant. I’m glad I did, because it’s mostly gone now, and whatever’s left will never be the same.

(9:40a.m. ET): Police just gave another short briefing on the situation and say that searchers are still going to house-to-house looking for survivors and victims, but did have any details about what has been found. He says they are still in "search and rescue mode" and not "recovery mode." The danger of a second explosion has also be significantly reduced.

The Waco police spokesperson says there are reports of some looting in damaged houses—homes as far as five blocks away were "leveled"—but while none of the fires are out of control, but the area is still too dangerous to allow media to get close. There are still "three to four" firefighters that are still missing. One constable who was considered missing has been found alive, but injured. No other casualty figures have been confirmed.

The spokesperson says West is the kind of town where no one who is homeless "will be left out in the rain."

(9:13 a.m. ET): CBS This Morning has an explainer on the chemistry of anhydrous ammonia and how the water sprayed by firefighters trying to put out the blaze might have actually contributed to the explosion. (See also this old explainer why a dangerous chemical is so popular.)

(8:48 a.m. ET): WFAA reports that 10 buildings are still on fire in West.

(7:45 a.m. ET): Reuters has released some stunning photos of the devastation at the plant, taken by photographer Mike Stone. (The AP has some new ones too.)

(7:11 a.m. ET): This interview with Dr. George Smith, the emergency management system director of the city who was on the scene for the fire and was injured in the explosion, offers a very powerful first-person account of what happened. (via KCEN, which has more witness reports.)

kcentv.com - KCEN HD - Waco, Temple, and Killeen

(7:00 a.m. ET): Some of the local sources to follow for breaking updates are KCEN-TVWFAA-TV, NBC-5 (there's an embedded stream of their broadcast below), and the Dallas Morning News, which has more details about the damage. The paper reports that "a four-block area around the explosion's epicenter was 'totally decimated,'" including an apartment building with 50 units that was "destroyed." Nearby residents report windows and doors being blown off their homes, and debris and burning embers showering down after the explosion. 

(6:35 a.m. ET): The mayor of West, Texas just updated the media on the status of the town. He said that 50-60 homes were "severely damaged" in the explosion and that all residents in the blast radius have been evacuated. The nursing home near the plant, which had 133 patients, has also been completely evacuated.

A fire burns in a apartment complex destroyed near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early Thursday morning, April 18, 2013. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The mayor said the fire began around 7:00 p.m. local time on Wednesday, and the explosion about half an hour later, as firefighters were on the scene. One witness, who was tossed to ground by the blast, told CBS News that "The explosion was like nothing I've ever seen before. This town is hurt really bad."

(6:15 a.m. ET): Authorities in search and rescue are still struggling to get a handle on the number of dead and wounded, but at a short 6:00 a.m. news briefing, police placed the number of dead at somewhere between 5-15. That number is expected to rise as the sun comes up and rescuers continue to dig through destroyed homes and neighborhoods. According to CNN, some officials had earlier suspected the number of deaths could rise as high as 70. There are currently more than 160 injured at four local hospitals.

There are also still other concerns that could complicate efforts to find survivors and victims: The fire is mostly under control, but is still smoldering in some places. There's still a slight danger that a second fertilizer storage unit at the plant could ignite, setting off another explosion. The blast was caused by, and released, toxic anhydrous ammonia fumes that may affect the air quality around the area, hamper breathing and even damage the lungs of those who inhale it. And if all that wasn't enough, a line of strong thunderstorms and heavy winds is about to pass right through the area before the morning is over.

There is still no information on the cause of the blast—which was so powerful it registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake—but authorities say there is "no indication" at this time that it is anything other than an accident. Still, the plant will be treated as a crime scene and ATF agents are on the scene to help with the investigation. The blast was heard as far as 45 miles away.

Original Post (11:45 p.m., 4/17): Several homes are on fire, and residents of a nearby retirement home are trapped inside after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, a small town near Waco. The cause of the explosion and extent of the damage is unclear, but the local Department of Public Safety says that a number of of people are severely injured. The explosion could be felt as far away as Dallas, which is nearly 100 miles away. (Scroll to the bottom of this post The top of this post has a live feed from the local NBC affiliate.)

Witnesses nearby reported seeing a massive fireball rise from the site of the plant. It's all pretty scary for those nearby. "I said, 'This thing is going to blow' ... and I told my mom and dad to get in the car," one witness told the Waco Tribune. "I was standing next to my car with my fiancee, waiting for my parents to come out and [the plant] exploded. It knocked us into the car... Every house within about four blocks is blown apart."

Once again, little is known about the incident. A hazmat team and firefighters had been dispatched to the fertilizer plant after reports of a fire. Apparently the explosion occurred after they arrived, and several firefighters were injured. "There's nothing I can tell you other than that we've had an explosion," the West, Texas Fire Department told the press. "There are injuries, casualties, it's terrible." The CEO of the local Hillcrest Hospital said that they anticipate about 100 injured people.

With the recent terror attack in Boston, an explosion like this is certainly unsettling. But again, we don't yet know what caused the explosion, so don't jump to any conclusions. It is worth noting that this week is the 20th anniversary of the end of the deadly siege in Waco. This is a developing story, and we'll update you with new information as it flows in.

This video may be shocking:

Lead image via Instagram / andybartee

Image via Instagram / andybartee

 

Image via Twitter / ReidGolson

Image via twitpic / Jonathan Wald

Waco Tribune reporter Kirsten Crow has been live tweeting from the scene and says that the injured are being treated on the local football field.

Image via Twitter / Kirsten Crow

This appears to be the fertilizer plant: