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Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion; Obama Heads to Boston Today

Aired April 18, 2013 - 09:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following also the investigation behind this terror.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: How are you, Wolf? It's good to be with you today. We are going to start with what's going on in West, Texas. West is the name of the town, it's about 20 miles from Waco. They have been in a very desperate situation since about 7:30 p.m. local time. That's when a fire broke out at a fertilizer factory there. About 15 minutes later, there was a massive explosion. So powerful that it registered as an earthquake, a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. But it was an explosion of a very noxious and dangerous chemical compound used in making fertilizer.

This is a small town, West, Texas, less than 3,000 people. We are told that 50 to 60 homes have been destroyed. Half the town, 1300 people, were forced to be evacuated. The injuries were quick, some severe, over 150 people have been treated so far.

The most difficult part of this situation, what makes it so dire is the unknown. This chemical compound, anhydrous ammonia, used in making fertilizer. Difficult for the lungs, the eyes. Can be lethal if taken in too much. There were some early injuries on it, they have been battling throughout the night. Search and rescue going on as we speak.

The latest challenge here. Even though they had the benefit of daylight is weather. So let's go Martin Savidge, he is on the scene there.

Martin, what's the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're standing by here with the latest information coming out of West, Texas. And what we known, as daylight has finally returned to the area, is that this is when the search and rescue crews are going to make their final sweep of the town.

The problem that they've had just before the sun came up was some severe weather that passed through this area. And weather has now cleared but it did make it difficult for the search and rescue teams. And it is still a search and rescue effort. That's something that the authorities are underlining here. They are still looking for potential survivors. Most of those were transported overnight. They have close to 200 people that were taken to area hospitals, and their injuries, most of them suffering from blast injuries, range from moderate to severe. Those that went in to try to rescue friends and neighbors -- it's a small town, they know everyone here -- said that it was a horrific scene. Not only the devastation, which they just could not believe, they described it as something like tornado had swept through their entire town. But also just the casualties that they saw. People stumbling out of the ruins of their homes, many of them covered from head to toe with blood. One nurse I spoke to said that she drove to the scene, and she immediately saw a woman stumble out of the apartment, she was covered from head to foot with blood. She then realized that she was also holding a little child in her arms, that child too covered with blood. The child is alive. Treatment began right there on the streets for many.

Today it is going to be trying to figure out exactly what caused that fire and also trying to ascertain how many people may have died. The death toll has put at five to 15. Authorities warned, though, it could go higher. We also know that among the casualties are the first responders, we've seen it here, we've seen how word is spreading. People with a nod, with a shake of the head, a telephone call, walking away, realizing that someone they knew, someone they love, is gone as a result of the tragedy here.

In West, Texas, I'm Martin Savidge.

CUOMO: All right, Martin. Thank you for the report. We'll be checking in with you there.

We have been talking about the risk of weather. If I still have you, Martin, can you tell me, is the weather proving to be of any benefit or is it just dealing with more tough conditions?

SAVIDGE: It's a bit of both, actually, Chris. I mean, the winds have been problematic because they're shifting back and forth and they've been strong at times and that could shift any of the debris if you're trying to do a search for a building that's been weakened by the blast.

The rain, though, clears the air, helps wash the particles out. Toxins, things like that. So that's beneficial. So it has helped when it comes to any kind of environmental hazard. But it has slowed at least, the search and rescue effort, and of course it will help stabilize those fires and put those embers out. So good and bad. Daylight is the biggest help they've got now.

CUOMO: All right, Martin, we'll be checking back with you.

And just to explain to you at home, the reason that this weather may be a little bit helpful with this chemical compound they're worried about is that anhydrous ammonia means without water. So it turns into a vapor, it's dry, it can be weighed down by water tamped into the ground. That's what we're hoping that happens here.

Now the continuing risks are, the fire is not yet out. It's still being battled under more difficult conditions now because of the severe winds and weather. There is another tank of fertilizer compound that they're worried about. That's what exploded in the first place. There's another one, so that's an ongoing thing. And then there is just search and rescue. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people down there as they continue to fight.

We have George Howell on the phone, he's monitoring the situation at the hospitals.

George, what do we know? Has there been any new influx of injured?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Well, Chris, we have some new information to pass along here at Hillcrest Hospital, a little more insight into the patients. I've been seeing the latest number that we had, at least 101 patients at this hospital alone. They saw the most patients.

Here is what we know. Twenty-eight of those patients were admitted and continue to receive care. We know that two patients are pediatric trauma patients who were transferred to Scott & White McLean's Children's Hospital in nearby temple. Also we heard word about this nursing home near that plant. We now know that 12 elderly patients were taken to this hospital, treated and then discharge, taken to alternative nursing facilities.

And also in addition to the patients who are admitted, either transferred, or discharges, we know that 15 more patients were treated and released, sent back -- released to their families, to their friend. So that's what we know about this one hospital alone, and, you know, I spoke -- we heard from Glenn Robinson. And we get a better sense of the injuries that they are dealing with. Listen to this.


GLENN ROBINSON, CEO, HILLCREST BAPTIST MEDICAL CENTER: We have seen, as you would expect in this type of blast, a lot of lacerations. Some small, some large, some puncture wounds. Our orthopedic trauma team have also been taking care of a number of broken bones and dislocated hips and fractured hips, fractured legs, those types of things. We have also -- our neurosurgical trauma team has taken care of a handful of patients that have had head injuries.


HOWELL: So I spoke with Robinson just a few minutes ago. He said that we will get a new update at this hospital around 3:00 p.m. Central time.

Look, it's a lot of information, but I want to run through this real quick. Other hospitals, Providence Hospital, saw 65 patients, Chris, Scott & White Hospital saw five patients, two of them children in critical condition, three adults, two of those adults in critical condition, one in stable condition.

And Parkland Hospital in Dallas, keep in mind they have quite a stellar burn unit there. That's one of their expertise is we know that they have two patients from this area. Still unclear why those patients were there and their condition, but we are -- you know, obviously keeping in touch with these hospitals to learn more.

CUOMO: All right, George. Please keep us in the loop. We know you did the reporting down there. Thank you very much. Be safe in that weather.

The good news, these are big injury numbers for such a small place. The good news is, they haven't gone up since we started covering this early this morning. And hopefully it maintains that way but it's a very fluid situation.

You know, Wolf, just like we saw here in Boston, a horrible set of circumstances we're facing. This small up community they pulled together themselves they became as citizens first responders and they helped make this situation less tragic and it could have been but still going on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Still going on. An a lot of heroes out in West, Texas, also a lot of heroes here in Boston.

Chris, stand by for a moment.

We're also learning meanwhile that several firefighters are still missing after the blast at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that's not far from Waco. That according to a police sergeant, who is reporting this information. Apparently a law enforcement official who has been missing after the blast has been accounted for. It has been accounted for, he's in a hospital in critical condition right now.

The Texas National Guard is monitoring the air in and around the town of West, Texas. It's not clear how many people have been exposed to this kind of ammonia. The gas coming from this fertilizer plant. It's a gas used to make the fertilizer at the plant. But its fumes can be very, very dangerous. Suffocating, can cause blistering, can cause chemical burns if it stays in the body.

This is a serious situation, Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent -- senior medical correspondent is here.

Talk a little bit about the impact, Elizabeth, of the -- of the gas from this kind of fertilizer plant.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. We know a lot about this gas because it's often involved in explosions. For example, when crystal meth labs explode, that's ammonia. And so what it is is if you get a huge big whiff of it and you're exposed to it a lot over time, even quickly it can kill you. It can kill you.

However, if you don't get too much of it, you get out to the fresh air quickly, you can be perfectly fine. So it really depends on how much you breathe in.

Now listening to the press conferences this morning from the hospital, it seems like they are more dealing with the results of the explosion, not so much the results of the gas inhalation.

BLITZER: The debris and all of the material that exploded. COHEN: Exact. Right. Right.

BLITZER: Causing serious physical harm to a lot of the people. But not necessarily the gas. But it's not over with by any means.

COHEN: No, it isn't. Then you know, it's -- we don't know how much this gas has dissipated. So the explosion itself burned some of it up which is a good thing. And then wind can take it away. And certain temperature situation can make it dissipate.

So we really don't know how long this gas hung out for. But if they hung out there for a while, people were exposed to high concentrations of it, it can be instantly dangerous. And even if it's not instantly dangerous, Wolf, it can cause lung irritation, ear, nose, and throat, and eye irritation. That can -- you're going to have lots of effects from that.

BLITZER: Well, what's the treatment? How do you -- how do you deal with a situation like that?

COHEN: You know what? Fresh air. I know that seems strange as a medical treatment. But that's basically what it is. You can't really give someone to counteract the effects. You just get them to fresh air as quickly as you can.

BLITZER: As quickly as you can and there's medical personnel all over the place. This is a serious situation in West, Texas, right now.

Elizabeth, thanks very much.

One thing that potentially could help is some rain, some weather that's coming into the area. Elizabeth -- Jennifer Delgado is standing by with the latest on the weather that's moving in. Some serious weather that could be bad for the rescue and recovery, but at the same time, could be good, Jennifer, as far as dealing with some of these gas-related issues.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's right. You know, the rain is certainly good, because this is helping, of course, with the fire there. But we're also talking about a negative to it. And that's what the winds that are moving along with the cold front.

You can see the winds right now gusting at 25 miles per hour. At times, they have been up to about 40, 45. Now the winds coming in out of the northwest. Well, earlier, before the front moved through, it was coming in from the southwest. And pushing the fumes in a more northeasterly direction. Now with it coming in that northwestern of the direction, it's going to push it down towards the southeast.

You're looking what's left of the rain through parts of Waco as well as West, Texas, and still some lingering lightning out there and of course we're really concerned about that, with so many people being outdoors, the first responders and people without homes, but as we go throughout the morning, the rain will be done by 9:00, but the winds will still be gusting up to about 35 miles per hour at times. So continue to follow that, but it's going to be cold. Wolf, we're talking temperatures dropping near 38 degrees tonight. Significant drop, 20 degrees cooler.

BLITZER: Serious weather in Texas, at West -- near West, Texas, where this fertilizer plant exploded last night.

Jennifer, thanks very much.

Just ahead, Boston coming together for a time to heal right now. Thousands of people are inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for an interfaith service that is about to begin. The president of the United States, the first lady, also they are on the way to participate in the service.

Our special coverage of that and all the breaking news out of Texas, the investigation into the


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're following breaking news out of Texas right now.

We have learned that five to 15 people are now believed to have died in the massive explosion at that fertilizer plant near Waco, town of West, Texas. Police are also dealing with several firefighters who are missing. People who responded. First responders, about 160 people have been sent to local hospitals.

The mayor of West, Texas, said it was like a nuclear bomb going off in this town. Many people say the blast felt like an earthquake. It actually registered as a 2.1 seismic event. That's an earthquake. Up to 60 houses around the fertilizer plant were damaged. Now, officials are deeply worried that people may have been exposed to a dangerous chemical gas.

We're also following other important stories, including a major story here in Boston. The healing process, it continues today after Monday's attack that turned this city, this city's beloved marathon to mayhem. About two hours from now, less than two hours from now, the community hopes to come together at an interfaith memorial service to honor those who died as well as the victims of the twin bombings at the Boston marathon.

President Obama and the first lady, they are on their way to Boston right now. The president will speak at the memorial service. This is an interfaith memorial service. We will, of course, bring it to you live.

Investigators are reporting significant, in their word, significant progress in finding out who is responsible for those two bombings, no arrests have yet been made, no arrests have been made, no one in custody. But they have some serious suspicious, as a result of images taken at the finish line moments before the two blasts. Photos of those men have been distributed to law enforcement, and people are going through those photos to try to determine if, in fact, these men may have had a role.

Today, we're also expecting the test results from the letters sent to President Obama and the Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Those letters are suspected to have been tainted, to have been laced with the poison ricin. It can kill you, ricin. The FBI has arrested a man in Mississippi in connection with this case. His name, Paul Kevin Curtis, and he also is an Elvis Presley impersonator of all things.

Officials across the nation are looking for more suspicious letters even as we speak right now.

Chris Cuomo is also watching all of this. He's just outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the interfaith memorial service will take place -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, thanks, Wolf.

People have lined up since 4:00 in the morning. The name of the service is called Healing Our City. They'll be clergy from all over Boston. There'll be political dignitaries here.

Archbishop Sean Cardinal O'Malley will be here. He will speak at the service. But, of course, the guest of honor will be President Obama and the first lady.

And it is said the life of the dead is put into the hearts of the living. And that's what today is about for the service, to allow the people here to come together, share their grief and move forward.

I'm joined, of course, by Jessica Yellin and John King.

Jessica, the president is going to come here. This is a message that's going to have big importance to the people here.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It will here, and also, Chris, and around the nation. And the president is well aware of that. I suspect he has given a lot of speeches at events, sad events, during his presidency, especially in the wake of recent gun deaths, mass shootings, Tucson and more recently in Sandy Hook.

This speech I think will take a very different tone. Today, it will not be solely about sadness, but about American resilient. I think he will focus a lot on Boston strength. This is a tough town, and that it's a town that's already come back to life.

I think you will hear him talk about the people who died and remember them in some detail, but also the heroes. And I also think you might hear him talk about his own experience. Remember, he went to school here in Boston and he might talk a little bit about his own time as a young man here.

CUOMO: Now, the word resolve the president was using, another clergy member using the lines of community and unity be used in defiance of cruelty and violence, the vibe here. JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Part of the president's challenge, part of the governor's challenge, the mayor's challenge, and the community's challenge.

There's an anger about what happened. Three people killed, 180 or so wounded. Shocking, because the marathon is such a big annual event here. It's the right of spring, if you will. It's a day for family, it's a marathon. It's always a celebration for people who have nothing to do with athletics, worldwide renowned to be athletic event.

And so, the city is stunned. But to the point of resolve, we don't know from investigators. They have no information about motive so far. Domestic terrorism, international terrorism, the president, he needs to send a message to the community and the nation that they'll get to the bottom of that and you'll hear that from the president and you'll hear it again.

And then you get into the healing part. You mentioned, we'll have representatives of the different faiths here. We're in the south end of Boston, always one of the most diverse neighborhoods. Cathedral here, public housing is right behind us.

This is the community where you have the flow of immigrants, and it replaced each other over generations. You go back years and years. Our viewers can't see it, but directly in front of us, you can see that the finish line is steps from here. You can get from Copley Square from this neighborhood, just a short walk.

So, this is the part of the community saying, we know we are planning funerals, we know we have to come up with a victim's compensation fund. We know we need to keep up with the investigation. But the community needs to rebound.

You hear this from the president after 9/11, Bill Clinton after Columbine, President Obama after Newtown -- yes, there are problems to solve and issues like healing and mourning, but it's important to send a signal, we'll get back to normal.

YELLIN: I mean, there's a real unique message after what's now officially being called a terror attack, right? Which is America doesn't let terrorism stop us. And that is part of the president's message today, is that this is a tragedy, we are pausing and we are remembering, but we keep going. Americans move forward.

CUOMO: It's interesting. You know, someone said to me last night. This was a terror attack, but we're not terrified. They probably did pick the wrong city this time in thinking that they would instill fear in the hearts of the people. In Boston, it seems to have an opposite effect.

Fair assumption?

KING: You see that all across. You see the political community rallying. You see people around. You know, this might not sound right to some people, but the Boston Bruins played their game last night. The mayor was angry they canceled the Celtics game the night before. He thought that was a mistake. He thought they should have played that game. He sent a signal that we're not cancelling anything.

He said he's been told there's a major hospital opening that was scheduled for today or tomorrow. He said they called and they said, Mr. Mayor, should we cancel that? He said, hell, no. Go ahead with that event.

You said that here in Boston. But, you know, they sang "Sweet Caroline" at the Yankees Stadium, the country has realized --

CUOMO: Here, they're moving. But hold on. We're going to take a quick because there's another situation that's still in great crisis down in Waco, Texas, near Waco, in West, Texas.

And we want to find out what's going on there right now. Who could we go on to the ground and figure out what's going on right now.

All right. Good. Here is a press conference right now. We don't know who is speaking. Let's listen in and get the latest.


SGT. WILLIAM PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT: -- I don't know when, and I apologize for not being able to give you a timeline on that. It is what it is. At some point that will happen, but I don't know when. Most likely I will be gone and it will be up to somebody else to do.

There are no new numbers. I can tell you there are still firefighters missing. I don't know if I told you in the last press briefing or not that one of the missing persons was a firefighter/law enforcement officer. I can tell you that individual has been found. He is in a hospital, and he has some pretty serious injuries. I don't know his status, whether it's critical, serious, or whatever, but I was told that he is in the hospital, has some pretty serious injuries.

There are still firefighters missing. Those of you who have asked me earlier about the numbers, I don't know. I can tell you that this was -- I have found out for you, that it is a volunteer fire department. Meaning that they probably have a very large contingent of people that are willing to risk their lives for their neighbors and their community at a phone call. That is what they were doing last night when this occurred. I don't know how many initially responded. I know there are numerous firefighters there. We have accounted for many, but some are not accounted for.

I think that kind of brings me up to speed with everything that I know. Again, I know that information is a little limited. Short of assuring you they are there on the ground still. They are still in what we are calling a search and rescue mode, that's good news to me. Meaning they are probably still getting injured people. Have not gotten to the point of no return, where they don't think there is anybody still alive. I will answer some questions, but again, please work with me on -- I will called on you as I see hands. I'll try to get to as many as I can. And everybody kinda help listen so we don't repeat questions, fair enough?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) -- some survivors, I want to make sure I'm clear on that (INAUDIBLE)?

SWANTON: I don't know that again. I know that that's what their purpose is there for, is to go in and find people who are injured. I don't have the number of how many they have rescued or how many potential bodies they may have found. Those numbers are not being released to me, other than to tell you that I know they are going house to house, doing probably initially a very quick search, cursory search, let's get in quick, go through. Now, they may start going back at some point, doing a little bit more methodical search, slow ground search, being more aware, to look in closets in homes, look under beds, under furniture, things along that line.

Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know what sparked the fire?

SWANTON: No word on what caused the fire. ATF is here, the state fire marshals are here, I've had a couple of questions, why is the Clinton county SO working? The body (ph) part of it in ATF in state fire is working another part (ph). And the reason that is occurring is that will allow the state fire marshal and ATF to focus on a specific area. Their focus will be the fertilizer plant to determine the cause of the fire and the cause of the explosions and then the Clinton County sheriff's department will be working the bodies (ph) that they find as hours and days go on.


SWANTON: The guess that I have still on the estimate is anywhere 5 to 15, and that's a rough number.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two questions, in terms of emergency personnel, are you guys just missing (ph) those firefighters or are there any (ph) EMS or police missing, and are all residents (INAUDIBLE) accounted for?

SWANTON: I don't know about the residents in the nursing home. It is my understanding at this point we are still dismissing approximately three to four firefighters, that's a rough count

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No police, no EMS missing?

SWANTON: As far as I'm aware of.

Yes, ma'am.


SWANTON: My understanding the firefighters that are missing were first responders. They were the ones that actually went to the scene, on the call, their page out. They responded to the scene, were actively fighting the fire at the time the explosion occurred. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The law enforcement officer that's missing that's now found, what is his condition in the hospital? Where was he located?

SWANTON: Again, I said I don't know his condition. I know he was located in a hospital with serious injuries. I don't know what his condition is at this point. My understanding is not only was he law enforcement. I believe he was a constable, but also volunteer firefighter, so he was serving a dual role there.

Yes, sir.



Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know if the reverse 911 system went into effect (INAUDIBLE)?

SWANTON: I don't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know of any previous fires or safety issues at this plant in the past couple or few years?

SWANTON: I do not. And, again, I will tell you, even though we are relatively close, the city of West has their own police department. They have their own city management, city employees. We are here in assistance this morning and from last night.