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Texas blast levels homes, kills up to 15

WEST, Texas -- A massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, shaking the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and leveling homes and businesses for blocks in every direction. Rescuers searched rubble early Thursday for survivors.

The explosion in downtown West, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Dallas, could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on shocked and frightened residents.

“They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes,” Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning. He added later, “At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue.”

Swanton said authorities believe that between five and 15 people were killed in the blast, but stressed that is an early estimate as search and rescue operations remain under way. There is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

Among those believe to be dead: A group of volunteer firefighters and a single law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the West Fertilizer Co. about an hour before the blast. They remained unaccounted for early Thursday morning.

The explosion that struck around 8 p.m. leveled a four-block area around the plant that a member of the city council, Al Vanek, said was “totally decimated.” The toll included 50 to 75 houses, an apartment complex with about 50 units that one state police officer said was reduced to “a skeleton,” a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients, some in wheelchairs.

Other witnesses compared the scene to 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.

Although authorities said it will be some time before they know the full extent of the loss of life, they put the number of those injured at more than 160 early Thursday. West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 residents needs “your prayers.”

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In this Instagram photo provided by Andy Bartee, a plume of smoke rises from a fertilizer plant fire in West, Texas on Wednesday. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco Wednesday night injured dozens of people and sent flames shooting high into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin and causing major damage to surrounding buildings. (AP)



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