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Huge Explosion at Texas Fertilizer Plant; Two Suspects in Boston Blasts

Aired April 18, 2013 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: While you were sleeping, this massive explosion tearing through a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas. Dozens may be dead. Hundreds are definitely injured. The blast leveling an apartment complex and badly damaging a nearby nursing home.


D.J. 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 Murray building in Oklahoma City.


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

BERMAN: In Boston, a possible break in the marathon bombing. Investigators focusing on two possible suspects who were seen near the finish line moments before the blasts.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And this morning we're waiting for test results to confirm whether letters sent to a senator and the president were laced with the deadly poison ricin. A Mississippi man has been arrested for allegedly sending those letters.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Christine Romans for you this morning.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman, live here in Boston. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

SAMBOLIN: And there is a lot going on this morning. But we begin in the small town of West, Texas, it's about 20 miles west of Waco. It resembles a warzone this morning. It was rocked overnight by a massive chemical explosion and a fire at a fertilizer plant. That blast captured on video.

Just incredible. Dozens of homes and buildings were leveled or severely damaged. The town's mayor telling CNN what that explosion felt like.


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


ROMANS: About half the population of West, Texas, some 1400 people, were evacuated. Officials say there are two confirmed fatalities. That number could rise throughout the day. More than 150 people are being treated right now at area hospitals. Officials are going door to door. They are searching for survivors this morning.

BERMAN: We are all over this story for you this morning with live team coverage. It is a very fluid situation on the ground there. That's where we find CNN's Martin Savidge. He is in West, Texas, for us.

Good morning, Martin. What's the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Yes, this is the command post that we're standing at. It actually normally is a cattle auction site. It is far from normal here in this community. This town has had its heart ripped out as a result of just that massive explosion that occurred yesterday evening.

And let's be clear, this is still an ongoing operation. There are still threats, still dangers, there's still rescues and evacuations that are taking place. This town may be small, but the impact has been huge.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Stunning video. The West Fertilizer Plant in the small town of West, Texas, exploded. The blast and the massive fire followed, leaving dozens of homes and buildings damaged or destroyed. The town's mayor telling CNN what it felt like.

MUSKA: I've never experienced an explosion like that. It was a ball of fire. Looked like a nuclear bomb went off. Big old mushroom cloud.

SAVIDGE: The blast was so strong it registered as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Explosion on the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need every ambulance we can get this place. A bomb just went off inside here. It's pretty bad.

SAVIDGE: Half of the town's 2600 residents were forced to evacuate. Officials concerned about potentially deadly gas fumes and a second fertilizer tank that could also explode. People living near the plant feared for their lives. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When it exploded, we all just hit the ground and I was trying to cover up my daughter because there was a lot of debris flying. And then after that, it was just basically search and rescue.

SAVIDGE: The smoldering fire and fumes prevented rescue workers from getting near the plant. Officials say the blast area resembles a war zone.

WILSON: Massive. Just like Iraq. Just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Same kind of anhydrous exploded so you can imagine what kind of damage we were looking at there.


SAVIDGE: You know, John, we have talked to a number of survivors that have gathered here as well at the command center. They're shell shocked. They are -- literally have that dazed expression on their face. They really can't even soak it all in, that it's happened to their community and what has changed in their lives.

I should point, the real concern now is a very strong line of severe weather that is about to strike in this area. The number of concerns, of course, how that could impact any rescue operations, how it might change the direction of the wind and who could be threatened by any possible toxic fumes, structures that are weakened and if there are people still trapped inside. And weather is the last thing they need in a moment like this -- John.

BERMAN: You can say that again, Martin. You have a sense of how close the rescuers and officials can get right now to the blast or to the houses and the nursing homes that are nearby?

SAVIDGE: Well, they have been, actually, in the process of getting into the nursing home and getting into some of those nearby homes, the apartment buildings, when they had spotted the fire. They realized that the fire was a danger. Evacuation was the first thing that had to be done, even before trying to knock out the flames. And they were in the process of doing that, moving people away when that blast went off.

You have two compounded effects there. Those who were first responders took the brunt of it, literally, and then on top of that, those who were evacuating were hit by debris. So it came at a terrible time. And right now they're still adding up the costs. You know the numbers that have been talked about as far as fatalities, and I'm not going to get into guessing on that, they're worried. And they're worried those numbers are going to go high. And it's not just civilians but it's also the emergency responders they believe that are among the casualties -- John.

BERMAN: And there will be no certainty until daylight when they can actually get in there and see for themselves.

Martin Savidge for us in West, Texas, thanks so much -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, joining us now on the phone, CNN's George Howell. He's near Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas, about 18, 19 miles from the site of this explosion.

George, what can you tell us about how many of the injured have been taken there and what sorts of injuries they're seeing at this hour?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Christine, you know, when we talk about these numbers, first of all, we understand from George Smith, with Emergency Management, that at least two emergency personnel may be dead in this case. We also know that a total of 166 patients, we're talking about Hillcrest Hospital here where 94 patients as of last count were taken to that hospital.

Another nearby hospital, Providence Hospital, with 58 patients. And Scott & White, which is the trauma center here, four patients taken there. Again at these hospitals, a lot of injuries. We're talking about everything, Christine, from scrapes to bruises, broken bones, respiratory issues from this anhydrous ammonia that, you know, that officials are very concerned about, but no deaths have been reported at these hospitals.

And, you know, the big concern tonight and this morning, going into daylight hours, is a storm system that'll be moving through. It will hamper that search and rescue operation, but fire officials say that the death toll here could rise as high as 70. So, you know, that's what they're looking into right now.

ROMANS: And we know these early reports can be very difficult to pin down simply because they are trying to secure the scene. We know there was a fire first, then there was an explosion. We know that anhydrous ammonia, something that is used prolifically in the agriculture industry, something that -- that is an ag country where you are right now, cattle auctions, farming. This is something that is a way of life for so many ag communities but it's also very dangerous and people know that.

What do we know about first responders? What do we know about people who are trying to help who have been hurt in the process?

HOWELL: Well, again, and we're watching the weather situation change slowly but surely. This big storm system will bring a lot of heavy rain, it will bring winds. A lot of the wind and rains that we saw in Oklahoma just a few hours ago when we were covering storms there, it's a nasty system that's coming through this area. And that will cause a real problem as this search and rescue continues. But keep in mind, these officials, their first priority right now is and has been looking for survivors, looking for victims and looking for the potential dead. So you know, that's their first objective right now. And they're also keeping a close eye on that.

ROMANS: All right, George Howell, for us, thank you so much.

And again a warning that it is still 10 hours since the explosion but very difficult to pinpoint numbers and just the breadth of this disaster there in the little town of West, Texas -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: And also very dangerous conditions as people are trying to head in that direction to help. So be warned to be very careful and to not head in that direction. The director of West, Texas EMS George Smith telling our affiliate KCEN-TV an incredible story of what he saw and what he did despite being hurt himself.


DR. GEORGE SMITH, WEST EMS DIRECTOR: We got a report of a fire at the fertilizer plant. The fire trucks went there and we sent the unit that (INAUDIBLE). We always do to help back the firemen up. I saw how bad it was so I went to the nursing home and 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 to me there that was in the building 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. Luckily he was on the second floor when he fell down, it would have fallen on him. That whole street is gone.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Where were you at when --

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

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is this like? I mean, explain, how are you feeling right 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've got different kind of radio systems to notify McLelland 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 dangerous materials, hazardous material, we can't get to them right now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you ever seen or been in anything like this before?

SMITH: No. I was -- I was in Katrina, I have to work with the disaster medical assistance team of FEMA, but it's -- 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 -- 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 don't 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? Not a -- but a bomb.

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. I said, I've got a job to do. There's people hurt worse than me. And I need to get -- I can't communicate with my people. Our radios aren't working. I don't know where are my people. I have 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 trying to help, they were running in that direction when the explosion -- 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. They need to get some search teams in here to get the people out. Probably from Texas A&M, Texas Task Force One.


SMITH: I called a friend of mine in Austin, I got through, and I said, please notify Austin what's going on. Because we're going to need more than just local.

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

SMITH: Yes. We've got help. You can see, just seeing right here, there's an east Texas ambulance 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've got a job to do. Thank God I normally go to the scene. I've been gotten to fire first. Thank God I wasn't I it, I'd probably be dead. My wife wanted to go with me. She's in the truck right there. And even on the other side of the nursing home it blew out the windows of my truck, and screwed up the door and the hood. From the other side of the nursing home.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SAMBOLIN: You know we got a chance to talk to this man on the phone, George Smith, while he was sitting at the hospital getting stitched up, as he said. And he said he just could not believe the extent of injuries. We wanted to understand what he had -- what he had actually seen. And he said that he believes of those original firefighters that went in, which is a volunteer fire department, he believes six firefighters are dead.

He said that at the nursing home, which he's the medical director of, that seven to 10 people were unaccounted for but he said it is possible that their family members came and actually picked them up.

He also said something, you know, that -- horrifically sad, there was a little boy. He said about 8 years old that was thrown through a home and that they put him in a car to transport him to the hospital.

We're hearing all these numbers of, you know, the folks who have been injured. And we don't know what the number of fatalities are. And he says we're really going to have to wait until daylight until all emergency personnel can get in, until it is safe in order to find potential victims. So just a really tragic situation. He'd lived in that community for 38 years. You know, that is his home. A very difficult situation here this morning.

ROMANS: People on the ground trying to compare it to a bomb or trying to compare it to other natural disasters.


ROMANS: But anyone who lives in a town like this knows that a fire at a fertilizer plant is incredibly dangerous. And first responders responding to a situation of a fire where there's anhydrous ammonia stored under very high pressure in tanks knows that it is a very, very dangerous situation and that an explosion in that kind of a situation can be absolutely devastating. And that's apparently what's happened here.

Also a concern about the chemicals in the air being blown by the wind and endangering the rest of the community. Again, this anhydrous ammonia held under very, very high pressure, in tanks. Once it's released, first it can linger very close to the ground before it can dissipate. And it is flammable. Plus a severe weather threat that affects the rescue efforts as well.

Jennifer Delgado has more on the weather situation for us.

Jennifer, we're hearing people on the ground, our own George Howell also saying the great concerns about rough weather moving in and how that might complicate the picture. Tell us about that weather.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely, you know, talk about timing right now. We do have a severe thunderstorm watch just to the west of West, Texas. And here is the line right here. This squall line. And along this we are going to see very gusty winds. Winds up to 40 miles per hour. We've already seen some of those wind gusts up to 50. Now, we're expecting it to make its way to West, Texas, right around 5:30, 6:00 local time, and again that's Central Time.

Here's West, Texas, here's Waco, Dallas up here. Right now it's located roughly about 65 miles away. When it's moving at a rate right now of roughly about 45 miles per hour. We're expecting it there right around 6:19. And the problem is, with this coming through, with so many people not having proper shelter, being outside, we're talking about ground lightning as well as hail and strong winds.

Right now the current conditions showing you the winds at 21 miles an hour, gusts up to 29. But we're going to take you through the future. As this front pushes through, as we said, right around 6:00, behind that we are going to see those winds shifting out of the northwest. Making the flow go down towards the southeast. As we take it through, 6:00 a.m. and all the way through noon, we're still going to keep rain in the forecast. With those wind gusts up to 25 miles per hour.

Right now we're going to send it back over to John. I think he is live in Boston.

BERMAN: All right, Jennifer Delgado, our thanks to you.

Just to put that in perspective, we're talking about an hour, hour and a half away before those very strong wind gusts and that very difficult weather reaches that town of West, Texas, right now where they are in this incredible recovery effort at this moment.

Joining us on the phone right now is Glenn Robinson. He is the CEO of the Hillcrest Medical Center. He is in Waco, Texas, about 18 miles away. That is where many people are being taken for treatment.

Mr. Robinson, thank you so much for joining us by phone. Give us a sense of what you're seeing at your facility.

GLENN ROBINSON, CEO, HILLCREST BAPTIST MEDICAL CENTER (via phone): Thank you, John. This evening since this event began at 8:00 local time, we have now treated 101 patients here at our trauma center here at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. Across town at Providence they have treated 56 patients. We are aware that at least nine patients were transferred to Parkland's Burn Center north in Dallas and also our sister hospitals Scott & White Memorial in Temple that has been our backup as well, they have received at least four patients. We -- in addition, we transferred two pediatric patients early in the evening that were brought to us and that we knew that needed a higher level of pediatric care and they were taken to McLane Children's Hospital there in Scott & White in Temple.

So far at this hour our trauma surgeons are reporting to us that we will have admitted 27 patients total here at Hillcrest. Five of those patients are in our intensive care unit at this time. We have already completed five surgeries and we're in the process of probably getting ready to go with at least a couple more surgeries at this hour.

BERMAN: What types of injuries are you seeing at this point?

ROBINSON: The vast majority of injuries that we're seeing have to do with lacerations. The type of injuries that you would expect following an explosion with a large amount of debris creating a huge debris field. Many patients arrived with numerous lacerations, some small, some large, some punctured wounds. We've also seen orthopedic injuries. Our orthopedic trauma specialists have been taking care of those patients with broken bones. In addition we've also seen head trauma. And our neurosurgical trauma team has been taking care of those patients as well.

BERMAN: Any confirmation of fatalities?

ROBINSON: No fatalities at our facility that we've seen this evening. Of course what's happening there on location at West, that best would probably come from law enforcement or emergency personnel on the scene there.

BERMAN: All right, Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas, thank you much -- thank you so much for joining us. Please, you know, keep up the work there tonight and we will speak to you again. Really appreciate it.

Up next on EARLY START law enforcement officials saying that they are making significant progress as they search for suspects here in Boston to find out who was behind those Boston marathon bombings.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SAMBOLIN: We begin with breaking news this morning. There has been a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. This is West, Texas. We do understand that there have been many injuries. I'm counting right now almost 200 patients that have been treated at local hospitals. There have been two confirmed fatalities. However, authorities are saying that that number could rise, probably will rise, as daylight takes over and emergency crews have an opportunity to go to the scene.

We've talked to many people who have been treating the victims overnight that actually said that they didn't witness more fatalities. It was an emergency or a volunteer firefighters that went to the scene first. And there was a gentleman there who works at a nursing home across the street that sustained a lot of damage who said that he believes that at least five firefighters were indeed killed during that explosion as they were running into the situation.

We're going to continue to monitor the situation for you. We have team coverage. We have a lot of people on the ground there that are monitoring the situation to bring you the latest information.

ROMANS: Also, we're following the investigation into who planted bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon this week, killing three and hurting dozens and dozens of people.

John Berman is live for us this morning in Boston with that developing story.

Good morning, John. BERMAN: Thanks, Christine. You know, I'm just a block and a half away from the site where those bombs went off and that area is still shut down as investigators pore through that crime scene. There have been significant developments in that investigation of the Boston marathon attack. Investigators pinpointing two men they spotted in pictures near the finish line. They are calling the men possible suspects.

Now those pictures have been distributed to federal and state agencies. Our Susan Candiotti is all over this story. She joins us now with the latest.

Good morning, Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. And right off the start here we want to tell you that any video you see now while I'm talking or any still images are not the ones that I'm about to tell you more about. Again, we have this from a federal law enforcement official who tells us of this high interest in two people that the official describing as possible suspects. Trying to locate these people because of where they were near the finish line before the blast of the Boston marathon.

And also they have an interest in them because of what they were carrying, which appear to be two dark-colored backpacks in which, as we know from investigators, they've been saying early on that from the evidence crime scene photos that they believe that the bomb may have been placed inside a metal container, a pressure cooker, and that in turn was placed inside a black nylon bag or backpacks.

So they're looking for these men, to try to locate them. My sources tell me they do not have names for these people, and so therefore they are circulating these photographs among federal and state agencies around the country. With a bit of a message, a memo that goes like this, quote, "The attached photos are being circulated in an attempt to identify the individuals highlighted. Feel free to pass this around to any of your fellow agents elsewhere."

I have seen these photographs. There are two of them. And we can best describe them as being still photographs. One from sort of -- taken from an aerial camera and two people are highlighted in them. There is a second photograph where this seems to be taken from ground level.

All of this coming at a time where yesterday we started hearing authorities say that they are making, as you indicated, John, significant progress in this case. Now, there was supposed to a news conference, a regular news briefing yesterday, but it was postponed and then eventually canceled. So we'll see whether we get more information about this as the day goes on. John?

BERMAN: All right. Susan Candiotti. But those wheels are turning with those photos being passed around among law enforcement officials all over the country.

Susan Candiotti, our thanks to you. And coming up, so much news this morning. An explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant. Dozens are feared dead this morning and there could be poison gas still lingering in the air. The latest developments just ahead. Stay with us.