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Continuing Coverage of Huge Explosion at Texas Fertilizer Plant

Aired April 18, 2013 - 04:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: While you were sleeping, a massive explosion ripping right through a West, Texas, fertilizer plant. Dozens may be dead, hundreds are injured. This blast leveling, just simply leveling an apartment complex, damaging a nearby nursing home. Also, dozens of houses nearby.


D.L. WILSON, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: I walked to the blast area, I searched some houses earlier tonight. Massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: The fire may be out but the threat is far from over this morning because of a potentially deadly gas could be lingering in the air and being pushed by winds further into the community.

Good morning to you. Welcome to this special edition of EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin in New York.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman in Boston. Again this morning, it is 4 a.m. in the East.

SAMBOLIN: And we are going to begin this morning with breaking news. It's developing overnight in Texas. A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas, that's some 20 miles from Waco. The moment of impact captured on video. Reports say 10 to 15 homes and buildings were demolished and crews are still trying to rescue residents at this hour. Dozens more homes are heavily damaged. And that blast shattered windows 10 miles away. The town's mayor telling CNN just what it felt like.


TOMMY MUSKA, MAYOR, WEST, TEXAS: I just have never seen an explosion like that. It's just like a ball of fire and it looked like a nuclear bomb went off. Big old mushroom cloud.


SAMBOLIN: So, John, police officials are reluctant to say just how many people have died.


SGT. W. PATRICK WANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT: 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 toward the morning. Numerous injuries have been removed from the scene to the hospital. We've taken them into our city limits, into Waco, to Hillcrest and Providence Hospitals where they're being treated.


SAMBOLIN: More than 150 people are being treated at area hospitals. About half the town of West, Texas, with a population of 2800 people has been evacuated. Officials are concerned a second fertilizer tank could explode. Hundreds of first responders are on the scene but the smoldering fire and the fumes are keeping the firefighters at bay.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the fertilizer plant explosion registered a magnitude 2.1 on the Richter Scale.

And I got to tell you, John, one of the other things that the sergeant said is that the winds are shifting in the area and so the chemicals that are in the air are of serious concern to them as they continue to evacuate people. They may have to have a wider swath of evacuation now.

BERMAN: Quite a situation down there, Zoraida. Again with weather expected to come in. The pictures simply extraordinary, mind- boggling.

CNN's Martin Savidge is on the ground for us in West, Texas, arrived just a few hours ago.

Martin, again, the pictures we're looking at -- they're just staggering. What's the scene right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, John, there is just absolutely no way to overstate both the devastation of a physical sense and the devastation really of a mental sense that has impacted this small town in Texas. It really has been a blast that has leveled people in many different ways.

Right now the effort is focused on still trying to evacuate those who may be caught up in the area of danger where there are the fumes from this fertilizer plant and also trying to rescue those who could be trapped in any of the debris.

The first wave of those who were injured, and it's well over 150 people, have mostly been transported. Their injuries range everywhere from the minor into the very severe. But the second wave that's anticipated is when daylight comes because that's when authorities will have a greater ability to maneuver.

It's very dark out around the plant now. It's very dangerous with the threat of another explosion with the possibility of poisonous gas. And there is just so much debris, officials say, that it makes it very difficult for them to move around.

Here is what the public information officer told us just a few minutes ago.


SWANTON: This is a downtown area. And when I say downtown area, there are businesses there. There are apartments there, a nursing home was there. There are homes in the area. It is going into a midsize city and having to search it home by home, business by business, block by block. It is a very tedious process.


SAVIDGE: As you've already heard, there are fatalities. That is something that authorities have confirmed to us. They simply will not be able to give us a number as yet. The numbers have gone all over the -- all over the place. There's no point in going to them yet. But they do say that there are fatalities. And they suggest that there were not only civilian fatalities but fatalities but there are fatalities amongst the first responders because initially this was a fire reported at the plant. Firefighters crews and emergency personnel responded to that fire.

They got there quickly and realized this was a very serious fire, very dangerous because of the potential for explosion of poisonous gas, so they moved to evacuating people from the nursing home, from the apartment complex that was very nearby. In the midst of doing all of that is when that devastating blast went off literally in the face of first responders -- John.

BERMAN: So, Martin, one fire and then a giant explosion after that. Again, we are looking at the pictures right now of the devastation after.

And, Martin, let me just ask you, in the air right now, is there any sense? Can you smell any gas?

SAVIDGE: No, but I mean, we talked about the weather. And the weather is going to be a factor and continue to be so. We've been buffeted by high winds throughout the evening. It's both good and bad. It's all coming from one direction, so that means that the potential for fumes are being driven over one specific part of town, and that's the part that's been evacuated or in the process. But there is a shift that's anticipated coming with a storm line that's going to pass through here. And that could expand the area.

So the winds are helping to dissipate the gas, if it does exist. The problem is, the winds are also going to change and now begin affecting another area. But directly here at the command post where we are, no, we have not felt any impact. Authorities have not expressed any concern for that. Of course, they are going to be watching very carefully -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Martin Savidge in the town of ,West Texas, for us. Thank you so much.

On the phone with us right is the mayor of that town, Tommy Muska, on the phone with us.

Mayor Muska, first of all, let me just say, you know, our hearts go out to you, the hearts of the entire nation go out to you in West. Texas. Can you give an update on the latest?

MUSKA: Well, thank you very much. Nothing really has changed. We are still in search and rescue. We have about a (INAUDIBLE) that's about a five-block area northwest of the fertilizer plant. It was on fire. It exploded -- again, we don't have any confirmation of fatalities. I know there will be. But we are going through the nursing home as well as the sites. Should know something more in the morning.

That place has been evacuated, hazmat (INAUDIBLE) Waco is monitoring the air as well as the PCQ. And so it's fine. We've got that going. It's just a matter now of waiting for the wind to change. Hopefully we will have all the fire out by 3:00, earliest time, that front comes in. So we're just trying to (INAUDIBLE) for everybody is accounted for. It is a devastating thing. Just tore up about it. And I am, too. But we're doing our best. I'm sure we lost some really good people today. And so all we can do is wait for daylight, clean the street, the debris out of the street. So by morning we should be able to tell what's going on. OK?

BERMAN: Mayor, what's the current assessment of further threats? Is there any danger of more explosions or another fire in this plant?


MUSKA: A school which was located next to the -- which is fairly close to the fertilizer plant. It's still on fire. We have crews there putting that out. The fertilizer plant pretty much after the explosion was -- there wasn't a whole lot of that left. And so they put that out and that should dissipate the fumes and the other (INAUDIBLE) come morning. That's what we're doing. We've got a number of crews from all over the state helping us here. We sure appreciate it. So, we're just -- we're putting out the fires and we're searching for survivors as well as deceased. So that's what I can report right now.

BERMAN: Mayor, obviously, the entire country has been on edge all week since the bombings in Boston where I'm standing right now. Have you been given any sense of what started the initial fire at the fertilizer plant?

MUSKA: No. No. West is in the middle of central Texas. And this is a farming community. We are predominantly a farming community. We have farmers all over, you know, all around our town, and this is a huge business. It's been here for god knows how long and they're main business is fertilizing the crops in this area so there's a lot of fertilizer in that plant.

There was no indication of anything other than an accident. And -- so that's -- that is just -- a plant that's been in West forever. I've known it forever and I've been here 65 years, so -- anyway, we'll have a press release later in the morning and I hope to give you some more details then, OK?

BERMAN: All right. Mayor Tommy Muska from West, Texas, thank you so much for being with us. We'll let you get back to your job right there. We know you have a lot to do tonight. We appreciate it -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: It's so difficult for people who have lived in that community forever to watch all of this devastation and have to care for all of these victims.

All right. So for more on the ground let's go to Adam Winkler. He's a reporter with CNN affiliate KEYE.

And, Adam, earlier we heard a spokesperson from the police department compare the destruction to Iraq war scenes. Can you paint a picture for us, please?

ADAM WINKLER, KEYE REPORTER: It is absolutely incredible. Another word we've been -- we heard used is tornadic. Sergeant Swanton of the Waco Police Department was one of the first to arrive on the scene. Of course when that happened the sun was still out. He said the devastation is massive. Again like a scene you would see if a tornado, F-4, an F-5, just ripped through the town. Devastation to homes, apartment complexes, nursing homes, a school nearby.

Just kind of set the scene of where we are. We're on the southbound service road of Interstate 35, about 50 miles north of Waco, two hours or so north of Austin, of course the capital city of Texas. Just over my right shoulder you can see the lights of the baseball field at West High School. That was a facility that was used as a triage center earlier in the night after that devastation.

We tried to get as close to the scene as we could. But as you can imagine law enforcement officials as far as the eye could see were just relying on the eyewitness accounts and what the law enforcement officials are telling us, and the words you said, scene like Iraq, a bomb went off, a warzone, tornadic. And they expect to learn much, much more about this terrible situation when the sun does rise here in West in several hours.

SAMBOLIN: I know that earlier there were reports that there were a lot of firefighters from other areas, emergency personnel that were going over to the scene and if they had enough emergency personnel. Have you seen a big presence there?

WINKLER: The presence is massive. And in fact, they are telling emergency personnel from surrounding towns that hey, we're good, we don't need you anymore. Thank you so much for your support, but we've got plenty of that. They are urging the public, we don't need your help. Please go to Abbott High School, at the high school just a -- a four, five mile drive up the road. Drop off your goods in the morning. You can give blood. That's how you can help around here. But in terms of emergency services, the support, the response was incredible. They are fine.

It's now a recovery mission. And again, as soon as the sun comes up they expect to learn much, much more. One official I talked to, again, could not confirm the number of casualties, he said there are casualties, I asked him how bad, he said, quote, "It's going to be bad."

SAMBOLIN: Yes. We're going to check in really shortly here with one of the hospitals to try to figure that out, how many victims they've received at the hospital. And if we have an update on fatalities.

But in the meantime, I wanted to ask you about a hazardous materials team. We keep on hearing about the chemicals that are in the air. We have another reporter on the ground there, Martin Savidge, he says that he can't smell anything but there is a concerns with the shifting winds that are going to happen later, that the evacuation area may be larger. Do you know anything about a hazardous materials team on site now?

WINKLER: They told us that a hazmat team from Kalin, which is a town about an hour and 15 minutes south, southeast of here, would be on its way. That was several hours ago. But when Sgt. Swanton of Waco Police was asked about the hazardous materials, he said there is none in the air right now as far as where we are. But again, we are south of town. You can tell the wind is blowing from south to north. We can't smell any fumes.

We've tried, we've tried to get closer to the scene earlier, turned off the car, rolled down the windows, again, couldn't smell anything in the air. But that wind is blowing south to north. Perhaps at 7:00 a.m. when they expect the wind to change and that wind could shift, we could learn much, much more.

All law enforcement officials are telling us is don't come to West.


WINKLER: Don't come and try and help. The town is not under a mandatory evacuation but they are trying to get people out. It's just not a good place to be right now in case there are hazardous fumes in the area.

SAMBOLIN: Well, Adam Winkler, we are very happy to have on you the ground there but we would also like you to be safe, with our CNN affiliate KEYE. We'll continue to check back in with you. Thank you very much.

And joining us on the phone right now is Glenn Robinson. He is the CEO of Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas.

Mr. Robinson, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We know that these are very difficult circumstances for you. Can you give us an assessment of the number of victims that have been received at your hospital and what the types of injuries are?

GLENN ROBINSON, CEO, HILLCREST MEDICAL CENTER: Zoraida, I'd be happy to. At this hour, we have gone back through, and of course being a level 2 trauma center, we are not only seeing patients from the disaster but also taking care of the normal type of emergency room work that would go on any given night. And we now have been able to identify at least 94 patients we have treated tonight that are directly related to the blast up in West.

Probably -- our trauma surgeons are telling us that we'll probably keep at least 19 of these patients overnight and at least for the next several days as they recover. We have completed at this hour five trauma-related surgeries. We probably have a couple of more to go. The type of injuries you asked. I would say those types of injuries is the type that you would normally see following any sort of explosion, especially resulting from flying debris.

Many of the patients that came to us this evening were suffering from a large number of lacerations, and injuries and puncture wounds from the flying debris following the blast. We've been able to treat many of them, suture them, care for them. Some have already been able to leave the facility. In fact, we'll probably have many more that will probably leave before daybreak this coming morning.

SAMBOLIN: There was a nursing home that was -- as I understand, right across the street. Did you receive victims from there as well?

ROBINSON: Yes. I don't have an exact number of how many came directly from the nursing home but we have treated several patients that were a part of that nursing home and many of them, as you would expect, are elderly patients. And we've been able to treat and take care of them this evening as well.

SAMBOLIN: We've talked a lot about this chemical that has been released into the air and that folks are being evacuated because of that. Have you seen any injuries that would lead you to believe that it was because of the chemical reaction, the air that's being breathed now?

ROBINSON: Those are things that you would immediately begin to think of as you would assess the scene, certainly from our standpoint, the health care system in wanting to be part of the trauma system that responds to a disaster like this, but we have not seen any sort of significant numbers of patients who were suffering any sort of respiratory problem or anything that you would expect at this time.

Of course, we're on alert for that. Our doctors are looking for anything that would be suspicious as a result, but at this time I'm pleased to report that we have not seen any sort of side effects or serious illness from any chemical fumes or burns.

SAMBOLIN: We're happy to hear that because I know that there's a serious concern about that. A couple more questions for you. We understand that perhaps among the fatalities may have been some firefighters. Do you know anything about that? Have you received any of them at your hospital?

ROBINSON: No, we have not received any patients that have resulted in fatalities. And I don't have any direct information on the exact number of fatalities. I know law enforcement is working hard to try to provide a number in that area but I would not be able to help you with any information in that regard.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Mr. Glenn Robinson, really appreciate your time this morning. We wish you the best of luck. The president of Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas. Thank you for your time this morning.

Let's head back to John Berman. He's actually at one of our other top stories, which was the Boston marathon, the explosion there. And helping us cover this other horrible situation this morning, John, as you talk to the people there and, you know, this is their community, this is where they've grown up.

And you know, they have to face such devastation at this hour, not even knowing how many people have died and hundreds injured and taken to the hospitals.

BERMAN: That situation clearly so fluid right now in that town of West, Texas, Zoraida, as you said. We are following the breaking news in this small town. It's just north of Waco, about 18 miles. And as we saw, there was this massive explosion and this fire at a fertilizer plant that happened late Wednesday night. At least two people are confirmed dead so far, but we're being told town officials fear dozens more may have been killed.

They also confirmed that some firefighters who responded to the scene are currently unaccounted for at this hour. More than 150 people have been injured. And they're being treated at area hospitals. The devastation said to be just simply tremendous. You can see some of it. Dozens of homes reduced to rubble. An apartment complex near the plant simply leveled. The concussive force clearly just immense. Rescuers are still going house to house, searching for victims, evacuating residents.

It's dark there, it's difficult. Officials are waiting for the light of day to get a better understanding of the extent of the damage and the destruction there, but we know, as I said, it is simply immense.

Right now, it is not know what caused the blast but it was so strong it was felt some 50 miles away. And it registers as a magnitude 2.1. See this chart right here. The first little blast you saw was the ground shaking, the second one was the actually sound, which comes later and the ground shaking right there. It just shows you how strong this blast was. So much going on.

And, Zoraida, you know, you just talked to a hospital official. I suppose if there's any good news right now, they're saying they're not treating people as of this time for any kind of chemical exposure or inhalation. This being a fertilizer plant with this ammonia that they're so concerned about.

So many injuries, but right now, Zoraida, that man telling you, that doctor telling you that no signs of any chemical exposure right now -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: No, we're very happy to hear that and we're monitoring that very closely.

Thank you, John.

And firefighters and everyone else in the vicinity of this deadly explosion should be very concerned about what we're talking about. It's a material called anhydrous ammonia. It's a chemical. The Centers for Disease Control list it as a pungent gas with suffocating fumes that's used as a fertilizer.

It is stored at really high pressure and it can quickly cause dehydration and severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing and irritation of eyes, nose and throat, and exposure to high concentration of anhydrous ammonia can also cause death.

Another witness to the devastation, Crystal Anthony lives very close to that fertilizer plant. She witnessed the blast. She told Piers Morgan she was just 100 yards away when all hell broke loose.


CRYSTAL ANTHONY, WITNESS TO EXPLOSION: It's just devastating. And it's bad. I mean I just can't even put it into words. I've never seen anything like that in person before.

PIERS MORGAN, HOST, PIERS MORGAN LIVE: Have you any idea how many homes may have been either totaled or damaged badly?

ANTHONY: No, sir. I mean, it's a residential area. It's homes, apartment complexes, the nursing home, our schools. Our intermediate was right there, the high school and the middle school all suffered damages.


BERMAN: The U.S. Geological Survey tells us the explosion at this West, Texas, fertilizer plant near Waco measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. And get this, so even though the blast occurred above ground, it still registered at several nearby testing stations that normally measure underground seismic activity. And that nearest station is about 25 miles away in Lake Whitney, Texas.

Obviously a very powerful blast and it was a very chaotic scene in the moments after the blast. Listen to the -- wait, I don't think we have that audio just yet so let's go back to Zoraida in New York.

BERMAN: John, you know what, we're going to listen in to affiliate coverage from KZEN here.


GEORGE SMITH, TEXAS EMS DIRECTOR: Probably from Texas A&M, Texas Task Force 1. I called a friend of mine in Austin, I got to it, I said, please notify Austin what's going on because we're going to need more than just local.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you feel -- I mean, right now, is god the only thing that can help you guys?

SMITH: Yes. Yes. I mean, we've got help. You can see just seeing right here, there's an East Texas A&M that's from Waco, there's Limestone, there's a Whitney Ambulance here. We've got everybody around helping us but it's a true disaster situation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are your prayers for your crew today and tomorrow and the next few weeks?

SMITH: That we get as many saved as we can and get them to hospitals where they can get appropriate care. I believe we have a total of six helicopters on the way. There's one right there.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You look like you're in so much pain. Can you even feel that with your adrenaline?

SMITH: Yes, but I just know I have a job to do. Thank god I normally go to the scene, I would have got there first, thank god I wasn't, I'd probably be dead. My wife wanted to go with me. She's in the truck right there. Even on the other side of the nursing home, it blew out the windows in my truck and screwed the door up and the hood from the other side of the nursing home.


SMITH: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And as you can see one of the witnesses, the first responder helping people. He was injured himself.


SAMBOLIN: You've been listening to live coverage of KCEN, that's our affiliate coverage there.

And I'm not 100 percent sure because we went in the middle of the coverage but I -- there are reports that in that area it is a local volunteer fire department that actually shows up. And when they did show up to the scene they realized very quickly that this was a situation that was going to require a lot more personnel to help and more experienced personnel to help.

So this gentleman right there was talking about the blast of the fire blowing out his windows. His wife was in the truck. So my assumption here, John, is this was one of the local volunteer firefighters that perhaps was one of the first ones on the scene and realized that this was an incredibly serious situation.

So joining us right now on the phone from Austin, Texas, is Marty McKellips, he is the CEO of the American Red Cross Central Region.

Thank you very much for being with us this morning. Can you explain to us how you're setting up to help all of the folks that are suffering here.

MARTY MCKELLIPS, CEO, AMERICAN RED CROSS CENTRAL REGION: Sure. The Red Cross's responsibility in a situation like this is to make sure we take care of people's immediate physical needs, provide them with hope and comfort and support that they're going to need over the next few hours, days and weeks. And so we have sent both our local volunteers and volunteers from as far away as Fort Worth and Austin into the area. We've established a shelter so that people will have a safe place to go when they evacuate.

SAMBOLIN: And so do you know the volume of people that you are serving? Do you have any indication?

MCKELLIPS: Not as of yet. There may be some people who currently haven't even come to us, so we really don't know. And I think until the fire is out and we can work with emergency management to see the true scope, we may not have an idea of that.

SAMBOLIN: You know there are a lot of people that are watching right now, a lot of people from that area that are attempting to help. What advice would you give them?

MCKELLIPS: Well, the first thing I would say is I know it's very tempting to go into the area but I would -- please allow them to get those roads clear and get those emergency responders and people in there and so to do what the authorities said. Over the next few days, the Red Cross and other groups that are helping will be providing information about how to do things like volunteer or support the efforts.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Marty McKellips -- did I get your name right? Are you the CEO of the American Red Cross Central Region?

MCKELLIPS: I sure am.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you and we would love to check in with you again. Thank you.

So we've telling you about the challenges of victims law enforcement and medical personnel all face in the aftermath of this huge explosion. There are serious concerns about the quality of the air. There's anhydrous ammonia gas in the air. And it is potentially deadly.

Earlier this morning our Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke about the special challenges that this particular explosion presents.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I was talking to one of the directors at the hospital there, the Hillcrest Hospital, earlier. And he said, look, you know, we had no specific plan to deal with this. We deal with this just like any other trauma situation. The problem, of course, Piers, is this is different than other trauma situations. You have the fertilizer plant as a potential fuel for that initial explosion which causes that primary blast, which could be felt blocks away and also the secondary blast, Piers, which is something we've been talking about here in Boston. I didn't expect to be talking about it again in the context of something else so soon but that secondary blast where shrapnel and other debris are blown, you know, quite a distance as well. Compounded by the fact that these chemicals, just about any chemical you can name, Piers, is probably located in a fertilizer plant like this. And one of the ones that we're hearing a lot about, the tank that may have been the genesis of this explosion, something known as anhydrous ammonia, something that typically is not a problem but when it's -- when there's a fire around, when there's fuel around, it can be quite flammable.

Also this typically is lighter than air, Piers, so it should typically just rise up and not be a problem. But when it's mixed with the humidity in the surrounding area, suddenly it causes this fog. So just consider all of that, Piers, the fire, the explosions, the people being evacuated, this ammonia fog, people who are the first responders. They themselves now at risk as a result of all that. It's of considerable concern.


SAMBOLIN: And I will add to that that there are also some very serious windy conditions in the area now and the winds are shifting. So they evacuated one area and now the concern is that they're going to have to continue to evacuate a larger area as those winds continue to shift.

A little bit of good news here that we talked to Adam Winkler. He is with one of our affiliates there, KEYE, and he did say that about an hour and a half away there is a hazardous materials unit that is making their way now over to West, Texas, in order to assess the situation.

We also spoke to somebody at a hospitals there, the CEO of one of the hospital there, and he said that they have not seen any victims that have come in for treatment that they think perhaps is caused by breathing in this chemical that potentially is in the air. So, of course, we're going to continue to watch that for you.

Our coverage continues here on CNN.