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More Reporting on Huge Explosion at Texas Fertilizer Plant

Aired April 18, 2013 - 04:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ZORAID SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. It's about 30 minutes past the hour right now.

SAMBOLIN: And John, we begin with breaking news. While you were sleeping, a massive deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas. Some 20 miles from Waco. A devastating moment of impact, look, was captured on camera.

At least two people are confirmed dead but that number could rise and, unfortunately, it could rise dramatically. Dozens of homes either leveled or severely damaged in that incredible blast. An apartment complex and a nursing home took the full brunt of it. Police say they're still actively searching for victims who may be trapped in their home.


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.


SAMBOLIN: About half of the town of West, Texas, with a population of 2800 was evacuated. The damage taking first responders by surprise.


JESSE ROSS, EMT: Just complete chaos, everything. It was kike something out of a horror movie. I rode up here with a -- with the police chief of one of the smaller cities over here. And he was on the response team for Hurricane Rita and Katrina and he said it was just -- they were nothing like this.


SAMBOLIN: Reports say the blast was felt up to 50 miles away -- John.

BERMAN: Zoraida, it is dark there, the weather is changing. It is an extremely fluid situation.

And CNN's Martin Savidge is live for us right now on the ground in the town of West, Texas.

And, Martin, you know, what's the latest information you're getting?

SAVIDGE: Well, John, you know, just again to try to stress to people the severity of that blast, registered 2.1 on the Richter scale. That's how you measure an earthquake. It's had a devastating impact. But as you point, there are a lot of factors that are now coming into play even though it were some 10 hours after the initial blast. You talk about one, the fact that there is still fires that are burning in the downtown area, in and around that plant. That is of course a concern.

On top of that, there is still evacuations that are being taken under way, you could say, in the community there. It is complicated by the fact that there is so much damage. I guess the best way to try to describe it from the video that I've seen, is it looks like that town took a direct hit from a very strong tornado.

Streets are blocked off, vehicles are devastated, buildings are partially collapsed and all of that is making it difficult for emergency responders to move around and do the job they have to do. And their primary focus is still rescuing those who may be trapped. Evacuating those who need to get out of harm's way and looking after survivors.

As far as trying to tally up the number of fatalities, unfortunately, but understandably, that is secondary right now. It is to rescue the living. There are fears, though, that there is a growing number of fatalities, especially amongst first responders, because they are the ones that were drawn to the plant. They were the ones that stared it in the face when it exploded.

There is also the concern for the fertilizer fumes of anhydrous ammonia. There are strong winds that's helping to dissipate it but there is one tank still intact. And any time there is fire near it, you have to be afraid of another explosion. Listen to the mayor as he spoke to us just describing where things stand now.


MUSKA: This is a huge business. It's been here for god knows how long. And their 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 here.


SAVIDGE: The worry, of course, is that could this in some way have been something other than an accident. The mayor seems to be knocking that down right away. He says, look, this is a fertilizer plant. It's a big one. The reason they have it is because the primary business surrounding here is all agriculture. Right now there is nothing to say anything other than an accident is responsible for what has happened here.

Meanwhile, we're still getting updates from public information officers. In fact, here's one of the more recent ones.


SWANTON: On the way in I can tell you that I saw homes that were burning. There were homes that had significant devastation, based on windows blown out, bricks pulled off, siding pulled off. Some home were leveled. It was almost tornadic, in effect. It looked like to me one home would be fine but the next two or three would be extreme devastation.


SAVIDGE: And now we've got weather to deal with. There's a pretty severe strong line that is headed directly for here and that is only going to make matters worse -- John.

BERMAN: As we said, Martin, this is a fluid situation going on at this very minute. The officials there have said that they have enough personnel on the ground in term of the response team, in terms of the medical care teams. Do you get the sense people of the town, and as we said there are evacuations going on right now, do you get the sense, since this happened at night that people know what's going on and they know what to do?

SAVIDGE: Well, I think, you know, first of all, this is a small town, 2600, 2800 people, so you can imagine the impact physically and mentally on this small community with such a major blast. Many people are still shocked. They're still dazed. When you try to talk to them, you can tell that the conversation is just sort of an automatic regurgitation of what they went through.

So I think initially people had no idea what happened. They knew that it was something huge. They knew it was devastating but they couldn't initially, until they looked in the direction of the plant, know what it was. Then it became pretty obvious what had happened. Now it was, well, what do we do next? And that is the real question. There are many people who won't be able to go home for a long time due to the devastation.

There are others who may be able to go home once the situation has stabilized. But this has -- really have a massive impact on a very small town. And there are people that are reaching out from all over this part of Texas to try to lend a hand.

BERMAN: And we've seen responses from the governor down there. The population of that town, some 2600, about 18 miles away from Waco, Texas.

One of the really poignant pictures that I saw, Martin, was the baseball fields, the sports fields in -- what, you know, in this town of West, Texas, the sports so important in that part of the country. The sports field, the flood lights are on right now because that's where they're taking people for triage, to treat them. You know, the hospitals in Waco, Texas, some 18 miles away, one medical center we spoke to had already seen some 90-plus patients, that's one facility. That doesn't get to the people on the ground there. There you're looking at it now.

That's the football field in town in the middle of the night. The lights are not normally on here, but you can see the treatment being given to these people. That nursing home that had, you know, its walls blown out. So many people there clearly in need of so much help.

And I guess, Martin, the good news is they are getting the help they need. I should tell you one other thing, Martin, we did speak to that medical center in Waco and they said they are seeing no signs of any chemical inhalation or health threats from chemical exposure. I suppose that is good news, but is there a concern where you are of just that with this anhydrous ammonia threat from the fertilizer plant, are people being given warnings about how they should behave or, you know, how to avoid inhalation?

SAVIDGE: Right. There always is going to be a concern as long as there is any kind of fire and as long as the situation is unstable anywhere near the area of that second tank that is still very much intact. It could be that the blast, the first blast, was so massive that it literally just dissipated the lethality of the gas at that particular time.

The other tank appears, from the pictures I've seen of it, to be intact and not necessarily leaking. So that would be, of course, a positive. On top of that, the wind is helping to blow things around. But I've got to tell you, they have to be very concerned. They have to realize that the danger is not over. They are through the initial wave, but there is secondary waves that potentially may come, of victims that are found, especially as daylight comes upon us -- John.

BERMAN: And daylight is what everyone is waiting for, Martin. On the ground for us in the town of West, Texas, Martin Savidge, thank you so much -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Well, Heather Beck of Providence Hospital is joining us now on the phone.

And, Heather, thank you for spending some time with us this morning. Earlier we talked to Glenn Robinson, he's the CEO of Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas, a trauma center, I understand. And he said that they had received 94 patients, 19 of them will be kept overnight. What are you seeing at your facility?

HEATHER BECK, PROVIDENCE HOSPITAL: Thank you. We have treated 65 patients, and of those 65 we have admitted 12 patients.

SAMBOLIN: And could you tell us the extent of their injuries?

BECK: Yes. We actually had only one patient that was in critical condition and that patient has since been upgraded to stable condition.

SAMBOLIN: That's good news.


BECK: And the rest of the injuries -- it is very good. The rest of the injuries that we're seeing are consistent with an explosion. Things like lacerations, cuts, bruises, broken bones, and respiratory distress and then of course some head trauma.

SAMBOLIN: So you are seeing some respiratory distress. They were not seeing any of that at Hillcrest Medical Center. And we are concerned about that because of this anhydrous ammonia that perhaps have been released into the air and people breathing that.

Could you tell us a little bit about those problems that you're seeing?

BECK: I don't have further details on the respiratory distress. I do know that we have a full staff of respiratory therapists that were called in and that are treating our patients of the admissions. I can't tell you how many of those are due to respiratory distress, but I just know that that is something that we have been seeing.

SAMBOLIN: And of the 12 that you had admitted, have you taken any -- I don't know about the one that's in critical condition. Have you taken any of them into the O.R.?

BECK: Not that I'm aware of, no.

SAMBOLIN: That's a little bit of good news as well. And my last question to you -- actually, I have two because we did understand that some firefighters were missing, some had -- sustained some injuries. Do you know anything about that? Have you received any of those at your medical facility?

BECK: No, I can't say that we have. It is possible but I can't comment on whether or not we've received any firefighters.

SAMBOLIN: OK. And what about any fatalities?

BECK: We have not seen any fatalities.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, we really appreciate your time this morning. We're happy to hear the things that you're telling us and delighted to hear that the person who was in critical condition has been upgraded. Appreciate your time and hopefully we'll check back in with you and best of luck to you.

BECK: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

SAMBOLIN: And one witness tells our affiliate KZEN-TV what he saw.


SMITH: We got a report of a fire at the fertilizer plant. The fire trucks went there. We sent the unit, the EMS unit, we always do to help back the firemen up. I saw how bad it was so I went to the nursing home. I'm the medical director for the nursing home. I went over to the station closest to where the fire was and called all personnel, too, and said, get people evacuated to the far side of the building.

Luckily we had most everybody out then. But then there was just a major, major explosion. The windows came in on me. The roof came in on me. The ceiling came in. I worked my way out to go get some more help. Of course, we lost all communication because the power went out. The ambulance station is badly damaged. The whole 1500-block of Still Meadow, which is the closest street to it. My son lives there. He was on the second floor when he fell down -- the roof would have fallen on him. All that whole street is gone.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Where were you at when --

SMITH: I was in the nursing home, which is just --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is this like? I mean, explain, how are you feeling right at this second?

SMITH: Exhausted. Trying to get everybody where they need to. Trying to do my job. I can't communicate with anybody. We didn't have cell service. Finally got enough information and went to the helicopter because they have different radio systems to notify McLellan County Disaster to get us all the ambulances, all the helicopters, everything we could here. We've got a lot of people still trapped in houses but that's hazardous material, we can't get to them right now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you seen anything like this before?

SMITH: No. I was at Katrina, I have to work with the disaster medical systems with FEMA but it's just overwhelming to us, for a town of 2400 we have three ambulances, and there are literally hundreds of people hurt. I know -- I don't -- I haven't been there but I'm very worried that my ambulance that was on scene, those personnel are probably deceased. I think some of the firemen may be deceased. Because I was inside a building quite away from it. I know most of the houses there are in bad shape. Our ambulance building is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What would you compare this to?

SMITH: An atom bomb -- but a bomb, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your emotional status right now?

SMITH: Overwhelmed. Trying to do the best I can. Of course they're trying to sit me down because I'm bleeding but I said, I have a job to do. There's people hurt more than me that I need to get but I can't communicate with my people. Our radios aren't working. I don't know where my people are at to get back to them.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Who are you most worried about and concerned about right now? SMITH: The people trapped in houses, I'm worried about, the EMS personnel. We had a class going on so we had 18 people in the class. Went over tried to help. They were running that direction when the explosion went. I have no idea how many EMS people may be hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If you could just ask for anything from the nation right now, what would it be?

SMITH: We're getting support. The main thing right now is just get support here. We're going to need some heavy equipment, probably the search team from Texas A&M, because it's like an earthquake. A lot of the buildings are gone. We need to get some search teams in here and get people out. Probably from Texas A&M, Texas Task Force 1. I called a friend of mine in Austin, I got to him, I said, please notify Austin what's going on because we're going to need more than just local.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you -- 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 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 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 got a job to do. Thank God, I normally go to the scene, I would have got to the fire 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 and my truck and screwed up the door and the hood from the other side of the nursing home.


SAMBOLIN: And I believe we have that gentleman on the phone right now.

Mr. George Smith, are you there?


SAMBOLIN: Sir, I have to tell you, you are a hero. We are watching you in action here. I heard you say that you were bleeding. Somebody's trying to get you to sit down but you can't because have you a job to do. So my first question to you is, how are you, sir? SMITH: My (INAUDIBLE) is broken. They didn't see us now because I calmed down enough to I could lead. I just -- I just got my wound all sutured up.

SAMBOLIN: And, sir, it seemed to me that you were having difficulty breathing. Was that just because of the stressful situation or were you having some reaction maybe to the chemicals in the air?

SMITH: There were (INAUDIBLE) and toxic smoke in the air.

SAMBOLIN: And how did you end up at the scene?

SMITH: I'm the medical director for West EMS, I'm also the medical director for the nursing home. When I saw the fire, I knew there were toxic chemicals there, so I went to the nursing home to try to move people from the one station closest to the other side of the nursing home. We called all the personnel from the nursing home. I think we probably saved some lives by getting people on the other side of the nursing home. Then all of a sudden we had that massive explosion and the windows and the ceiling and all that fell in on me.

SAMBOLIN: And, Mr. Smith, I heard you talk about some fatalities. Did you see fatalities at the scene?

SMITH: Where the explosion was, it was too toxic, they won't let anybody in. I know we've lost at two. I believe six volunteers.

SAMBOLIN: Oh my gosh.

SMITH: There's a fatality -- we have at least one fatality in the apartment complex across from the nursing home. We just now -- I left the area because I'm going to the hospital to get treated and calm down. We'll wait for daylight. Going to the houses (INAUDIBLE) There are several fatalities. And they were mentioning the patients that went to the Waco hospital. Hospital here I think treated something like 30 people. And I know at least three of those were critical. They were flown by helicopter up to Dallas, including one child.

SAMBOLIN: And that was at Hillsborough Hospital, you said?

SMITH: Yes, the regional hospital.

SAMBOLIN: And sir, at times I wasn't able to understand what you were saying so this may be redundant and I may be asking you to repeat some things, but did you -- when you were on the scene and there were fatalities, could you tell us, was it from the nursing home? Were there any children involved here?

SMITH: There were children from their houses. One little boy I understand got up and thrown into a wall. One child actually got thrown to -- wall of his house and in the yard. His family member picked him up and his dad and grandparents drove by private car to regional hospital. And he's critical and the grandparents are critical. They were flown up to Dallas regional hospital.

SAMBOLIN: And I was reading online that it's a volunteer fire department that actually responds to this area. Am I correct in saying that?

SMITH: Yes, it's local volunteer fire department and a volunteer ambulance service.

SAMBOLIN: And of those volunteer firefighters that showed up to the area, how many do you think were lost? How many do you think are dead?

SMITH: We think six of them.

SAMBOLIN: And I sincerely appreciate your time this morning. I know this is very difficult for you. This is your home. Of the folks that were in the nursing home, and I do know you have a connection to the nursing home. You say that -- are you the medical director for the nursing home?

SMITH: Yes, I am.

SAMBOLIN: The medical director. What kind of injuries that the people there sustain?

SMITH: Most of them were blast injuries. (INAUDIBLE) The ceiling fell down, the ceiling tiles. I know we have at least one broken leg, broken femur, upper thigh. Some of the material fell on them. There may be as many as between seven and 10 nursing home residents not accounted for. They may have been picked up by family members and we don't know. It was very, very hectic.

SAMBOLIN: And if you can just backtrack for me and tell me, what happened? How did you know that there was a problem? Was it the explosion and the smoke and the fire? Where were you when this happened?

SMITH: I had my ambulance radio and I'm a medical director (INAUDIBLE). So if there's something bad, I go to the scene. They radioed that they were going to a fire. (INAUDIBLE) to help the (INAUDIBLE), have the locaiton, going to get them into air conditioning and get them cool (INAUDIBLE) water. So my fear started there, well, when I started to go there, I saw how big the fire was and move up the toxic chemical so I went straight to the nursing home to try to evacuate that side of the building. And I think we got that accomplished before the explosion.

SAMBOLIN: And, Mr. Smith, you feel that there are probably a lot more fatalities and we just have to wait until daylight in order to be able to sift through the destruction?

SMITH: Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, ma'am, because some of the houses are just totally destroyed. There have been search and rescue (INAUDIBLE) and dogs and specialized equipment.

SAMBOLIN: And I know that there were a lot of helicopters deployed in order to move people expeditiously to some hospitals. And I thought I heard someone say earlier that there was a problem with one of the helicopters. Did you witness that? SMITH: No, I didn't know that. I did know that (INAUDIBLE), the FAA declared a no-fly zone around 10 miles around West because they were afraid one of the other tanks would explode and that sends out a blast and can make a helicopter crash. But to the best of my knowledge, I don't know of any problems with helicopters.

SAMBOLIN: And, sir, how long have you lived in the area?

SMITH: Thirty-eight years.

SAMBOLIN: I'm sorry, could you repeat that?

SMITH: Thirty-eight years.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-eight years. Has there ever been a problem with this plant in the past?


SAMBOLIN: Nothing?


SAMBOLIN: Mr. Smith, I sincerely appreciate your time this morning. We wish you a speedy recovery. You are nothing but a hero. Most people run away from crisis and you ran right to it. So, thank you.


SAMBOLIN: Thank you, sir -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, Zoraida, can you hear the strain in his voice.

SAMBOLIN: Unbelievable.

BERMAN: You can hear the concern, but you can also hear the resilience. What a night he has had and such strength and, you know, our best wishes to him as this situation absolutely continues at this moment in West, Texas.

SAMBOLIN: Well, as you're watching right there --


BERMAN: And on the phone for us right now with --

SAMBOLIN: You're seeing all the fire still burning, John. I just wanted to mention that.

BERMAN: The fire is --


BERMAN: The fire is very much still burning and as we said still a great deal of concern about the possibility of what may be in the air with the weather changing and the wind shifting. KXAN reporter Chris Sadeghi is standing by for us live in West, Texas, right now.

And Chris, what are you seeing?

CHRIS SADEGHI, KXAN REPORTER: Well, we're in a hotel here about three-quarters of a mile away from where that plant explosion happened. And one of the windows of this hotel three-quarters of a mile away was knocked out but this hotel filled up quickly. People who lost their home, people that were evacuated. We've been talking to a few of them, hearing their stories. And they say that it just started as a fire. They were watching the fire, like a lot of curious people would, thinking that they were far enough away. But then when that explosion hit, it shook the ground and it caused windows to be blown out.

It caused homes to come crashing down. It caused that apartment complex that everybody's been saying online come crashing down. I talked to a woman who lived in that apartment complex. She said that she just she heard the explosion. She looked up, her balcony started to fall down and she just ran. She ran and she's been spending the rest of the time trying to get in touch with her friends to see if her neighbors made it out.

You heard the reports about people being trapped. We really are waiting for the sun to come up just to see how bad everything really is.

BERMAN: Now this explosion, as we understand it, happened around the 9:00 at night. Shortly before 9:00. Of course the problem there is that's when people are home, people are in their apartments, people are in their houses. So when that thing exploded likely, you know, they were too close to the scene, too close to the situation. The people who have evacuated and at the hotel right now, what are they doing?

SADEGHI: Well, really they are -- they're in their rooms. They're coming and going. We've seen a few people dropping off water. They're trying to get in touch with friends. They're making sure everyone's accounted for. A few people are just really trying to be Good Samaritans through all of this. I talked to one man, he was just giving people rides. And as people didn't have a ride, to wherever they were -- wherever they were going, he was trying to get them there.

Remember there's also been a few shelters set up in the area. We just got back from one in nearby Abbott, Texas, which is probably five to 10 miles to the north of West. And they had the shelters set up. There was nobody in it but they did have a lot of volunteers and a lot of water that had been donated. So it's almost as if they're expecting over the next few days to take care of some people.

BERMAN: And we do understand there is some weather headed toward the area right now. How might that complicate the situation?

SADEGHI: Yes. It's funny, one of the men that we talked to had his windows blown out. He actually for a short time was able to go back and tried to board them up for that reason. He knew the weather was coming before they told him to evacuate. Right now it is very windy. I'm looking outside and seeing bushes and trees whipping around pretty good. It's very windy. As that wind turns we start to hear the concerns about that toxic gas.

That's certainly out there. Concerns about an explosion. And so definitely the weather is something they are monitoring and this wind could really complicate things.

BERMAN: All right, our thanks to you. That's Chris Sadeghi from our affiliate KXAN, a reporter who is live right now, just three-quarters of a mile, he says, from that massive explosion in West, Texas.

Thanks so much, Chris -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. We're going to take a quick break here. And when we come back, we're going to have much more on that massive explosion at the fertilizer plant in West Texas. We'll be right back.