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Disaster In Small Texas Town

Aired April 18, 2013 - 05:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A deadly explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant. The blast so strong it registered as a seismic event.

VOICE OF TOMMY MUSKA, MAYOR WEST, TX: Just a ball of fire went up. Looked like a nuclear bomb went off. Big old mushroom cloud.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Dozens of people are feared dead. Hundreds more injured. And officials are very concerned about a deadly gas that could be in the air.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And, a possible break in the marathon bombings. We are here in Boston where investigators are focusing on two men seen near the finish line just seconds before the blasts.


BERMAN (on-camera): Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. So much new this morning. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And I'm Zoraida Sambolin in New York.

ROMANS (on-camera): And I'm Christine Romans. It's 31 minutes past the hour.

SAMBOLIN: And we're following breaking news out of Texas this morning. The small town of west, it's near Waco, reeling from a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. At least two people have died, but unfortunately, that number could rise dramatically with the light of day. More than 150 people are now being treated in area hospitals. That blast leveled everything for blocks in West, Texas. A fire at the plant prompted evacuations before the explosion.


DR. GEORGE SMITH, WEST, TEXAS EMS DIRECTOR: 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 to me there that were in the building. I 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.


ROMANS: Authorities are now going door-to-door, looking for people who may still be trapped in their homes. And there's concern this morning that emergency first responders may be among the fatalities. They were responding to that fire. The fire, of course, before the explosion, John.

BERMAN: It's still dark there. It is still a very fluid situation on the ground in West, Texas. CNN's Martin Savidge is there. And Martin, what's the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, John, the latest is, of course, the ongoing rescue effort that is under way. The door-to-door searching you just described, and now, the weather. There's a very severe line that is headed directly for West, Texas right now, and that's going to be problematic, at least in the short term, because of the high winds it could bring.

Structures have already been weakened in that community. And it could impact the effort to not only try to save lives but it also could have an impact on the winds. And the winds are potentially what could carry the anhydrous ammonia. That's the very dangerous chemical they're talking about here that could be inhaled.

So, you know, there are really three levels at which they're functioning and still worried about this disaster 10, 11 hours after the fact, and that is, they've got to rescue, they've got to evacuate still, and they've got to keep an eye on that other tank that has not exploded. This community, you know, when that explosion went off, it shattered buildings, it shattered lives, and it has torn this town upside down.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Stunning video. The west fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas, about 20 miles from Waco, exploding. The blast and the massive fire that followed leaving dozens of homes and buildings heavily damaged were destroyed. The town's mayor telling CNN what it felt like.

MUSKA: I've just never seen an explosion like that. It was a ball of fire, went up 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 way. A bomb just went off inside here. It's pretty bad. SAVIDGE: Half of the town's 2,600 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Massive. Just like Iraq. Just like the Murray building in Oklahoma City. Same kind of anhydrous exploded. So, you can imagine what kind of damage we're looking at there.

SAVIDGE: Casualty numbers, John, still difficult to ascertain. We do know there are fatalities. That's been confirmed by authorities, and those fatalities reach out not only to just civilians but also the first responders. Many of them took the brunt of that blast. They were there trying to fight the fire and evacuate people when the devastating explosion went off.

This is the command center. It's where all the information that's been coming out of the media. That's why you see such a collection behind us. We're anticipating a news conference in just a few minutes, John.

BERMAN: We'll let you get to that news conference, Martin. Hopefully, we'll get to new information from that. Martin Savidge in West, Texas, thanks so much -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: CNN's George Howell now joins us by phone from Waco, Texas. Many of the injured have been taken to a hospital there. George, what can you tell us?

VOICE OF GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Zoraida, you know, we had some updated information now. Several hospitals that on list here. Hillcrest Hospital, 101 patients, Providence Hospital, 65 patients. They saw 65, admitted 12. We're talking about moderate injuries there. Scott & White, which is the trauma center, the level 1 trauma center, five patients. Two of them, Zoraida, children, both in critical condition at this hour.

Three adults, two critical and one in stable condition. And also, we learned two victims were taken to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Their condition still unknown. But again, we're talking about everything from scrapes to bruises to --

SAMBOLIN: George, I'm going to interrupt you here for a minute. We have a news conference happening right in West, Texas. We're going to listen in.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED) SGT. PATRICK SWANTON, WACO, TEXAS POLICE DEPT: I won't rehash old stuff, unless, everybody needs that or are there folks here that need? We're all aware why we're here, I assume. All right. Here's what I have so far. We have verified the times are a little bit different from what we first thought. Fire call came in at 7:29 p.m. local time.

The West Fire Department responded to that call and was in the process of working an active fire at the fertilizer plant. At 7:53 p.m., we got the first call of an explosion at the plant. Those of you that have seen the video understand the devastating effects of that explosion. It was a significant explosion.

I have talked to the troops that are on the ground there now that were going door-to-door, and there are homes leveled, there are businesses leveled, there is massive devastation in the downtown west area. I will tell you at this point, they are still in the search and rescue phase and they are currently going from door-to-door, house-to-house, business-to-business, still looking for wounded and injured people that have not been able to get out because of their injuries.

I can't confirm numbers of casualties, but I can tell you that we do have casualties. I can give you some numbers on injured folks from our hospitals. And what I have at this point is that Hillcrest Hospital has treated at least 100 individuals with varying amounts of injuries. Providence Hospital has treated to the upward numbers of 60 plus for the same type of injuries.

Scott & White in Temple has also received some injuries, and they are working injuries from this explosion as well. Abbott High School is our relief center for the evacuees. That is where we are sending people that are trying to find out about their loved ones. Abbott High School, again, is the relief center for that.

We know right now that our McLennan County sheriff's department is on the scene actively working this case along with ATF who has been called in as well as several of the other local government agencies to assist. I will tell you at the beginning that this is a crime scene. We're not indicating that it is a crime, but we don't know.

What that means to us is that until we know that it was an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene. ATF is conducting the main investigation at that crime scene, which is the fertilizer plant. McLennan County sheriff's department will be investigating any of the deaths that resulted from that explosion earlier this evening.

There will be investigations by McLennan County (Inaudible). Firefighters that were on the scene fighting the fire. The explosion occurred while they were actively trying to put that fire out. There was a law enforcement official on that scene as well that was working with the fire department in some type of capacity.

Until we know for sure who those individuals are in specific numbers, I can tell you that they have -- they range from anywhere from three to five as far as the number of firefighters that are missing. The casualty numbers, I don't have a hard number to give to you at this point. They are still working on that. I can tell you that it is estimated anywhere from five to 15 at this point.

I know that's a rough estimate, but that's the best I can give you. I know some of you have questions, but what I will ask you to do is please let me call on you so we don't shout over each other. It's very difficult to hear, as you all know with the generators and such. That brings you up to speed on where we are. I will tell you that that area down where the fertilizer plant is, is shut down.

That neighborhood is shut down. I just talked to the McLennan County chief deputy who has his troops there. He told me some of the devastation that his troops are seeing, is that there are homes leveled. There are businesses leveled. He says it looks like when the blast occurred, that the concussion and the pressure impact, if that's the correct wording, literally, destroyed homes in and around that plant.

We are, again, in the process of search and rescue. That is going to continue for some time. We are hoping that we will recover folks that maybe have not been able to get out from the rubble, but that process is ongoing. At some point, this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue. I know that the area is going to be shut down.

They will not give me a time on how long. I don't expect them to be able to give you a time on how long any time soon. In these type of investigations, there is no hurry short of getting the injured out and treating the wounded to complete anything. They will take the necessary time they need. They will keep that neighborhood shut down. I will tell you as media, I know you're itching to get there, but it is not a good idea.

Mainly for your safety, we're asking that you stay put. At some point this morning, I will kick it over to somebody from West. It's been my understanding that either the mayor will come back or a city official, at some point, will be here to address you. I have heard 10 o'clock for that time.

So, those of you that need to be here, please be here, and at 10 o'clock, some official from the city of West will be here to address you in a little bit more detail of what's going on down there. Again at this point, they are working it as a search and rescue. They will continue to do that for an unspecified amount of time until they think that they have exhausted all means of finding people.

And, until that point gets here, what they will end up turning into is an investigative mode and they will keep the area shut down. ATF will start working the fertilizer plant as a crime scene. And again, McLennan County S.O. along with their resources will start going from house-to-house and working any of what we'll term at this point questionable deaths that may have occurred from the explosion.

I'll take some questions from you. But again, let me call on you, please, and make sure that you talk loud enough so I'm able to hear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sergeant, why call this a crime scene from the beginning? Why not hedge it a different direction and just say you don't know? Why call it a crime scene?

SWANTON: Better to label it a crime scene and then it turn into an industrial accident than to say at a later time -- we always start out looking at worst case scenarios. That's kind of what we're doing here. I can tell you, I have heard no indications that this was anything other than an accidental fire.

However, the investigators in this case have not been able to get inside and see, determine what the source of the fire was, where it came from, whether it was intentionally set or whether it was not. They don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there anything to indicate from the radio traffic that it would have been intentionally set?

SWANTON: Nothing at this point indicates that we have had criminal activity. However, we are absolutely not ruling that out. The investigators will keep an open mind, and they will determine as they get through this investigation to try and figure out what occurred (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was this an all-volunteer fire department?

SWANTON: I don't have an answer to that question. I'm not sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Second question, what were they fighting the fire with?

SWANTON: I know they had their apparatus there and trucks --


SWANTON: Sir, I don't have the answer to that. I don't know. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The casualties, you're talking fatalities --

SWANTON: I didn't say 15 to 20. I said anywhere from five to 15 is the casualties fatality numbers. We know that we've had at least a 160-plus injuries that have been treated at the hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The five to 15 fatalities?

SWANTON: That's correct. Yes. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you estimate how many structures were damaged?

SWANTON: Not at this point. They will get a better determination on the amount of structures. I can tell you that that is a pretty compact residential and business neighborhood. I can tell you from being in there earlier that some of the homes that I saw, described it earlier as tornadic-type destruction. One home was OK. The home next to it, everything was shattered.

Wood was showing through. Brick were pulled off the wall. It just -- it had no rhyme or reason as to what it hit or missed. Yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At this point, what is the toughest part for investigators --

SWANTON: The toughest part for the investigators in the recovery is going to be just having to wait to be able to get in there. Number one, they're going to have to wait until it's safe to do so. I can give you a little update. There was what was described to me as some smoldering fires that continued, not only in the homes in the neighborhood but also inside the fertilizer plant itself.

Obviously, they're going to want to be very careful in entering any of the structures, whether it's a home, a business or the fertilizer plant, because we certainly don't want any more casualties from this fire. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sir, that north side of town they have (INAUDIBLE)

SWANTON: I have asked that question specifically about the environmental impact and the potential for that to continue. I have been told by the emergency management people that are downtown that, at this point, there is no threat to safety from the smoke from the fire. Yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about weather concerns?

SWANTON: So far, we're waiting on a front to come through. At this point, I have not looked at radar. We know, at some point, the weather's going to shift out. The winds are going to come out of the north. Again, I've been told that that is not going to be a concern based on the fire being under -- mostly under control.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two things you may have answered already. Any continuing or has fire resumed and the geography, how many blocks affected by the damage?

SWANTON: When i talked to chief deputy Kauffman (ph) from McLennan County S.O., he described the devastation as immediately around the area devastating. He said homes were leveled. He said it just kind of depended on where you were. Now, he didn't give me specifics, but he said in a general close proximity to the fertilizer plant that homes had, in fact, been leveled.

Others suffered structural damage. Windows blown out. Roofs caved in on the inside of the homes. That's part of the process they're going to have to continue. They're going to have to go into each and every individual home and clear each and every individual home to make sure there are no casualties or people trapped or injured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any idea what the casualty numbers are (INAUDIBLE)

SWANTON: No, sir, i don't have that. Sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mentioned house-to-house search. Have you found any survivors? SWANTON: I don't know that. I know they were going from home-to- home. Obviously, I'm trying to not bother those folks on the ground. They have a lot on their plate at this point. I don't -- I don't know specifics on rescues that they've actually done. Ma'am? I'll get right with you.


SWANTON: Daylight, obviously, it would become a little safer for the first responders headed there based on being able to see. At this point, due to the devastation that is there, houses being ripped apart, you've got serious concerns from wood, nails, stepping on floors that are not secured, potential for more roof cave-ins, things along that line.

To answer your question that you asked earlier, from what I understand, the fire department feels comfortable saying that they've got the fire under control. I'm assuming that they are still there watching that fire and making sure that it doesn't advance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And any other structures --

SWANTON: Obviously, there was a school in the neighborhood. Thank God that the school was out. That is something that before that school resumes, they will obviously go in. I don't have a report on whether the school caught fire. It's my understanding that there was damage to the school, but to what extent, I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you characterize how much of this --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is the air quality? Is it safe to be around?

SWANTON: From what I understood from our emergency management people on the scene, the air quality at this point is not an issue. It is not a concern.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you characterize how much of the town was effected? One gentleman told me how a lot of the town is just gone.

SWANTON: I don't know. I can tell you that from when I drove through there, there was devastation that changed from house-to-house, block- to block. It is a -- I don't want to call it constricted neighborhood, but there are homes close together, businesses close together. The main hub of downtown is a major thoroughfare.

Lots of businesses in and around the area. The city of West has experienced a very significant, major event for them. They have experienced significant devastation in their town. They are going to be in a mode of recovery for a long time. Fortunately, they are, again as i said, a very tight-knit group here in this community.

They have already pulled together. I would like to mention again that not only have we had local fire, rescue, police, medical services, but we have had assistance from the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex as well. there has been an outpouring of support from law enforcement, fire, medical, Red Cross is here.

From my understanding, the governmental agencies are here assisting. FEMA has been made aware. All of those issues get worked out at a certain point in time. At this point, again, our main goal and our main function is to rescue those that we can rescue, get them the medical help that they need and help those people start surviving.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- staffing at the plant at the time of the explosion?

SWANTON: I don't have a number of the staffing. I don't know -- I have not even heard if they were in the process of shutting down, had a skeleton crew there. I don't know that information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are there rescue and cadaver dogs making their way through the area now?

SWANTON: There will be at some point. ATF is going to bring in explosive dogs in. I'm guessing that, at some point, depending on the devastation to the homes, businesses that may actually use dogs to help search those homes as well. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said the air quality (INAUDIBLE).

SWANTON: I think that's a safety concern just for that area. We would much rather folks remain in homes. Certainly, we don't want people wandering the neighborhoods. Obviously, there would be concerns of people coming into the neighborhood trying to sight see. This is not the time to do this.

This town has suffered a devastating setback that they will recover from, but they need more to support than they need to worry about people wandering sightseeing through their homes. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there any way to measure the magnitude of the blast?

SWANTON: One more time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there any way to measure the magnitude of the blast?

SWANTON: I can tell you that I had a report from some of my cohorts that a seismic graph in Amarillo, Texas, registered a 2.5 on their Richter scale. I can tell you from seeing some of the video that I've seen, from talking to some of the people that I've talked to tonight, it was a huge explosion. The devastating fact of that comes from the concussion, the shock wave that reached out from that. It reached blocks, if not miles in its devastating effects. Yes, sir?

(INAUDIBLE) SWANTON: The question was, do we expect the number to grow and the number of casualties? I don't know. Five to 15 is a significant number for a town this size. My guess is going to be at daylight, once we're able to assess a little bit more, that we will either see the casualty rate rise or the injury rate rise.

We would like to say we hope not. We're going to hope for the best and prepare for whatever we come across. Yes, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've seen markings on the houses. What do the symbols mean on the homes?

SWANTON: The officers that were searching the areas are using that. I can't tell you what the symbols are, but I understand that they're color coded and that that symbolizes that they have found homes that they have cleared, searched. They've either recovered somebody out of a home or they may have found somebody deceased in a home would be my guess.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know what an "X" means?

SWANTON: I'm assuming that the "X" would mean that that home has been cleared, but I'm not for sure. OK. Any more questions? Yes, ma'am.


SWANTON: You know, for lack of better cliche, as the crow flies, if you will, we're probably two, three miles from fertilizer plant, roughly, two, three miles from the fertilizer plant. It is on the other side of the interstate. As you see the lights that are across the interstate now, that is a fairground football field. That's where they initially took some causalities, too.

The site of the blast is more towards the north side of the town, but it is not far from that at all. The mileage as far as the inside of the city of West, it's not a huge city. 2,800 in number, 2,800 plus, last census number that we had. The city of west itself is not huge. But it is compact in the area where the fertilizer plant was.

All right. Again, thank you for your patience with me. I will tell you that as I get somebody here to relieve me at some point this morning, I will make sure that I get them introduced to you so you know who you can expect to go to. Please be prepared sometime around 10:00 for somebody from the city of West (ph) to be here visiting with you.


SAMBOLIN: You've been listening to Sgt. Patrick Swanton with the Waco, Texas Police Department. Some really significant information that came out here. All morning long, he's been reluctant to talk about the casualties here. They had confirmed two. He's saying between five and 15 casualties now.

However, he did point out that it is still a search and rescue operation, particularly, in the town of West, Texas. He says that there are a lot -- there's massive devastation there, a lot of buildings collapsed so they have to continue to go through the rubble and see if there are other people that are injured or there are more serious issues like deaths.

ROMANS: And again, three to five firefighters are missing. He says 160-plus injured, five to 15 fatalities. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back with this breaking news.