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Disaster In Small Texas Town; Huge Explosion At Texas Fertilizer Plant

Aired April 18, 2013 - 06:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A fire, then a massive explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant. This blast was so powerful it registered as a 2.1 seismic event.


O.L. WILSON, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: I walked through the blast area. I searched some houses earlier tonight, massive. Just like Iraq. Just like the Murray Building in Oklahoma City.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The local authorities telling us now they believe the greatest threat from the fire is over but they are still battling it. Firefighters are still missing and the big "x" factor, potentially deadly gas could be lingering in the air that's connected to fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia. Officials fear changing winds could blow it further into this devastated community.

BERMAN: And this, a possible break in the Boston marathon bombing. Investigators identifying two possible suspects who were seen near the finish line, seen moments here before the blast.

CUOMO: And we're waiting on test results to confirm what a letter sent to a senator and the president, were laced with the deadly poison ricin. A Mississippi man has been arrested for allegedly sending them.

BERMAN: So much news this morning, so much to tell you about. Good morning from Boston. This is a special edition of EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

CUOMO: I'm Chris Cuomo. It's 6:00 a.m. in the east. Obviously, there's a lot going on. We're going to begin with the breaking news that we're following out of Texas. This started last night, local time, 7:29 there in West, Texas.

Then at 7:53, the explosion first came word of the fire. It has been a battle beyond compare in the area. It is being compared to war zone by those who are fighting it right now trying to get the fire under control, especially with the added ingredient of these chemical properties of the fertilizers that they're worried about. Homes have been destroyed. Buildings have been destroyed. We do not know numbers of what loss of human life there has been. There has been the injuries are upwards of 180 people now in local hospitals, but the officials on the ground say that is still fluid.

BERMAN: The range of deaths right now, fatalities in this news conference we just heard. Right now, they are giving a range between 5 and 15 dead right now. That news conference just finished up a little while ago.

CUOMO: The search is preliminary. So again, we're going to just stick with what's going on the ground. They do believe they're starting to get the situation under control. Let's take a listen from what we've heard recently.


SGT. WILLIAM PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT: It was a significant explosion. I have talked to the troops that are on the ground there now. They are going door to door. There are homes levelled. There are businesses levelled. There is massive devastation in the downtown West area.


CUOMO: CNN's Martin Savidge is on the ground for us in West, Texas. Martin, what's the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, as you just heard there, they're still going door to door. We're now 11 hours after this explosion and the search and rescue operation is still ongoing. That gives you an indication of how large an area that's been devastated, how difficult it's been for the rescuers to try to move about in the darkness and in that devastation that they've been talking about.

And then there's also the lingering threat. That threat comes from a number of sources, but primarily the fertilizer plant is still one large tank that has not exploded, still has the potential of a release of deadly toxin.

So it's been a difficult, difficult night and it's bound to be even more difficult day because daylight is no doubt going to bring more and more painful discoveries. Here's how it all happened last night.


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

TOMMY MUSKA, MAYOR, WEST, TEXAS (via telephone): I just never have seen an explosion like that. It was just a ball of fire and 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: 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.

CRYSTAL ANTHONY, WEST, TEXAS RESIDENT: 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 Murray Building in Oklahoma City. Same kind of anhydrous exploded. So you can imagine what kind of damage we're looking at there.


CUOMO: And the problem, of course, Chris, was the fact that when you had that fire, first responders went to the scene, they began the evacuations and that's when the plant literally blew up in their faces. You reported that the sheriff's department and now the ATF have been called in.

They are investigating and they are looking at that devastation as a crime scene. Also point out so far, nothing to suggest anything of than an accident, but in an abundance of caution, federal was brought in to take a look -- Chris.

CUOMO: Martin, at this point, it's just to be safe that they're conducting an investigation and obviously fluid situation. Because they're dealing with fire and chemical properties, what could be the significance of the coming weather, supposedly rain and severe winds, what are they saying about that?

SAVIDGE: Well, you know, they seem to imply that the wind and the wind shift, which may push it more to the north is not a concern so much for the community. It may be that it's driving it away from -- could be a more populated area. However, the weather is expected to be severe possibly and you're talking about a lot of weakened structures.

Now, still got an ongoing search and rescue operation, if there's still a potential for people to be trapped, that's not a good thing so weather is not something they want to have to deal with, but they will have to deal with and they'll have to deal with it soon.

CUOMO: Martin, thank you very much. We will be back to you on the ground soon.

BERMAN: There are people are being treated at a number of medical facilities in the area right now. The numbers range somewhere north of 160 people hurt. One of the centers where many people are being treated is in Waco, Texas, the Hillcrest Medical Center.

That's where we find CNN's George Howell joining us by phone right now. George, what are you seeing?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): John, you know, let's start with the numbers. Let's put the numbers in perspective. From our last count, we're talking about 173 people that were sent to various hospitals quickly through the list, at Hillcrest Hospital, 101 patients, at Providence Hospital, 65 patients.

At Scott and White, the trauma center that are here, the level 1 trauma center, five patients and at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, we understand two patients were taken there. And, also, let's talk about the casualties.

Early on we heard from fire officials that they were concerned that casualties could rise as high as 70. This latest number that we're hearing, anywhere from 5 to 15, that is the newest number we're hearing, and also three to five firefighters missing.

Also, I want to talk about the weather conditions as well. We were covering some severe storms in Oklahoma just a few hours ago. And this storm system right now here in Texas, you know, the air is still, temperatures are warm, but here in the next couple of hours these conditions will change.

It will hamper the investigation, the search and rescue. But again, as you heard even Martin Savidge indicate and we heard that official, not as concerned about that anhydrous ammonia, that fire, they're not as concerned about the winds shifting that.

Initially there was some thought about evacuating the other part of the town. At this point, it seems they're not as concerned about that.

CUOMO: George, the range of injuries right now, we are talking about mostly blast injuries or any sense of chemical exposure?

HOWELL: You know, it's a range of thing, respiratory issues and, yes, bruises, broken bones. John, we also know that at one of the hospitals here, at Scott and white, those five patients, two of them are children. Both are in critical condition and three adults, two in critical and one is stable at this hour.

BERMAN: All right, George Howell for us in Waco at the Hillcrest Medical Center. That's about 18 miles away from West, Texas, where this explosion happened last night. George, our thanks to you.

CUOMO: And as the officials are coming forward with word of the situation, you are seeing a picture of what they're dealing with. The director of the West, Texas, EMS George Smith, telling our affiliate, KCENTD, AN incredible story of what he saw and what he despite being hurt himself. Take a listen.


GEORGE SMITH, WITNESS TO TEXAS EXPLOSION: There was just a major, major explosion. Windows came in on me, the roof came in on me and the ceiling came. And I worked my way out to go get some more help. Of course, we lost all communication because the power went out.

The station was badly damaged. The whole 1,500 block of Still Meadow, which is across the street to it, my son was there. He was on the second floor. It would have fallen on him. That whole street is gone. We have a lot of people still trapped in houses. That's dangerous material, hazardous material. We can't get to them right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Never seen anything like this before?

SMITH: No. I was in Katrina afterwards with the disaster medical assistance team, FEMA, but it's overwhelming for a town of 2,400, 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 -- was on scene.

Those personnel are probably deceased. I think some of the firemen may be deceased because I was inside a building quite a ways from it. I know most of the houses there are in bad shape. Our ambulance building is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What would you compare this to?

SMITH: An atom bomb, a bomb. Yes.

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

SMITH: Overwhelmed. Trying to do the best I can. Of course, they're trying to get me down because I've got a job to do. There are 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 to get back to them.


CUOMO: You see the injuries there on George Smith's face. He is a doctor and a director of the West, Texas, EMS explaining a very dire situation. And still, a lot of unknowns. Search and rescue are still going on there in a four-block area around the fire including businesses and homes.

We also caught up with George Smith a little bit later on about an hour ago where he was getting stitched up himself. He hadn't even gotten any treatment to that point and he told us what else he saw.


SMITH (via telephone): They were mentioning the patients that went to the Waco Hospital, I think treated something like 30 people. I know at least three of those were critical but they were flown by helicopter up to Dallas including one child.

One little boy I understand was thrown through a wall. One child actually got thrown through the wall of his house into the yard. This family member picked him up and was -- private party to regional hospital. He was very critical. They were all flown up to the Dallas area regional hospital.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: 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 mostly volunteer fire department and 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 those 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 did the people there sustain?

SMITH: Most of them were blast injuries. The ceiling fell. I know at least one broken leg, broken femur, upper thigh. The ceiling fell on them. Maybe as many as between seven and ten nursing home residents not accounted for. They may have been picked up by members, but we don't know. It was very, very hectic.


BERMAN: It's been a long, long night for Dr. George Smith right there. We want to go to Patrick Swanton right now who is on the phone for us right now. Sergeant Swanton is on the phone. We just heard a news conference. Sergeant Swanton, can you give us the latest right now?

SGT. WILLIAM PATRICK SWANTON, WACO, TEXAS POLICE DEPT. (via telephone): Yes, update what I basically did with the rest of the folks. At this point, we are still in a search and rescue operation.

We know that we have at least 160 plus individuals that have been treated at local hospitals for injuries ranging from minor cuts, wounds, to broken bones. Some of the injuries have been described to me as critical type injuries.

We know now that the fire call actually went out at approximately 7:29 p.m. local time. The West Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene. Several firefighters were actually in the process of working the fire. They knew because of a seriousness of where they were they started doing evacuations.

At 7:53 we got the first call of an explosion at the plant. That explosion was a devastating explosion for this community. It has leveled homes in neighborhoods around the area. It has leveled some of the businesses. We know that we have casualties. We are uncertain of the numbers.

I can tell you at this point we still have people missing. We still have firefighters missing that were there working the fire. I don't like to guess but we're hearing from anywhere from five to 15 casualties, fatalities at this point and those numbers could rise once we are able to get into some of the homes and be able to search through rubble.

CUOMO: We understand that it's still so early and our hearts go out to you there and we're sheer everyone's thoughts are on the situation with what's going on in west Texas.

Is there any indication of what started the fire and do you have the resources that you need now? Are you getting help from surrounding communities?

SWANTON: Absolutely. One thing I would really like for the public to know. Waco police department, which is the largest city near West. West is about 15 miles north of us. We responded along with Waco Fire Department.

Numerous fire agencies, sheriff's departments, McLennan County sheriff department, they are working in the downtown area securing the scene. They've been going house to house, door to door, along with our local police department.

We have got a tremendous response from law enforcement, medical, fire personnel, first responders, and businesses wanting to help. At this point, we are still in the search and rescue phase. I can tell you that the ATF and the state fire marshal are here. They will treat this as a crime scene until we know otherwise.

There are not indications at this point that a crime is being committed. However, until we can prove otherwise, they will investigate this as possibly a criminal activity that has occurred. I have just been updated that the fire is still ongoing at the fertilizer plant. However, it is somewhat contained and controlled. But it is still an issue based on potential for that to erupt again and cause further damage.

I have also been told that the atmosphere in the general area is safe, that they don't expect that to change over the next few hours, even though we are having some weather issues here. Wind is shifting from one direction to the other due to a front that is coming through. But our emergency management people that are here and visiting with the folks that are helping with meteorological stuff are telling us that that should not be an issue.

CUOMO: All right. Thank you very much for the update. Please stay safe. We'll get back to you soon, sir.

Right now there is a presser going on at one of the local hospitals about the situation there. Let's listen in.

GLENN ROBINSON, HILLCREST HOSPITAL: We do take care of pediatrics but we felt with the children's hospital part of our system, we're standing by, they were ready. And so we transferred those patients.

REPORTER: What kind of injuries t to the children?

ROBINSON: Honestly, off the top of my head, I do t not know. That happened very early in the evening. They were some of the very first patients that were brought to us.

And so we were able to get those patients out of here promptly and get them to McLane Children's Hospital in Temple.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) irrigated, flushed?

ROBINSON: Yes, we saw that early on. We're treating them. They had some irritation to the eyes. And so we were able to irrigate those and take care of them.

But as the evening went on, patients that were arriving later did not exhibit any of those symptoms.

REPORTER: Any more patients being brought to the hospital or does it look like that's pretty much all of them?

ROBINSON: It has really slowed. But we are on standby and especially with the coming up our trauma team is here poised and ready to accept any additional patients that rescue teams might find and transport to our facility.

REPORTER: Can you describe the scene when all the patients started coming in (INAUDIBLE)?

ROBINSON: When a disaster code is called, we're all alerted simultaneously with text messaging and paging. And I arrived probably 15 minutes after the page went out. I was already at home.

TV ANCHOR: You've been listening to Glenn Robinson, the CEO of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco letting us know some 100 patients were transported there and from there they were able to --

BERMAN: All right. Elizabeth Cohen is with us here right now in Boston.

Elizabeth, we were listening to that news conference right there from the Hillcrest Medical Center, describing the condition of these patients as they were coming in. One of the interesting things we heard is that early in the night, this explosion happened around 7:30 local time right there. Early in the night, they were seeing irritation in the eyes which to me sounds like a chemical issue there. But they weren't seeing that all night long. ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. So, what's going on here it appears to be this release of anhydrous ammonia. And anhydrous ammonia is a chemical that is used in fertilizer. When it releases the effects can be anything from irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, you get into fresh air and you're fine. That's that is if you don't breathe in a lot of it. If you breathe in a lot of it you can have the issue of severe irritation or even death.

So, for example, this is some of the chemicals released from the Bhopal explosion, remember, in the 1980s. So it's been released in Nevada before, it's been released -- sorry, North Dakota before. It's been released many times. They know what to expect.

CUOMO: One of the problems with it is anhydrous means without water and this is particulate matter that settles near the ground, makes exposure a greater risk?

COHEN: Right. So, it turns into this gas, and you breathe it in. It all depends on how much you breathe in, at what concentration. You breathe in a lot, it can kill you almost instantly. You don't breathe in much, get to fresh air and you're fine and you have no lasting effects at all.

BERMAN: We heard from the sergeant, a police briefing there. He said the atmosphere in the area right now is testing safe. Does it dissipate quickly? Is that why they can be so certain that it's safe?

COHEN: It can dissipate relatively quickly. So, my concern would be for the people who breathed it in immediately afterwards. Not the people who were there later on.

BERMAN: And the issue there is there were two incidents really. They first came to the scene at about 7:24, 7:25, responding to a fire there. The first responders got very close to the area, then the explosion. So it could be that they were fairly close by and had expo exposure.

COHEN: And didn't know they should be wearing masks, right? You come into a fire, you don't necessarily know that you should be wearing the mask that would filter it out.

CUOMO: They're going to be dealing with burns also. That takes a lot of manpower, a lot of sophistication. How quickly do you think they will be able to get the help they need in an area like this?

COHEN: It's a very different situation for example where we're standing. When the explosion happened Monday, you've got I think about five level one trauma centers within a couple of miles right here. It's not the case in Waco.

CUOMO: We have the CEO of Hillcrest Hospital that has seen the flow of injuries down there. The CEO, Glenn Robinson is on the phone with us right now.

Mr. Robinson, can you hear us?

ROBINSON (via telephone): Yes, uh-huh, I certainly can. I can hear you fine.

CUOMO: Thank you very much for joining us. Our thoughts are with you. How is the hospital doing with this early influx of casualties?

ROBINSON: Well, we are almost back to normal in many ways. Of course, it was a very hectic evening, as you would expect with such a sudden influx.

But this is something as a trauma center, we drill for constantly. We plan for. We hope and pray it never occurs. But when it does occur, we are blessed to have such a great team of professionals of physicians and nurses and staff, and they just responded in an amazing way in the hours that followed the explosion that we experienced last night.

In fact, we probably had more than 250 physicians and nurses and staff that were not on duty at the time that responded back to our facility and so we were able to more than double our staff and to be able to accommodate taking care of the patients that we were receiving.

BERMAN: And you received more than 100 patients at one point. How many are currently still being treated?

ROBINSON: Our trauma surgeons are telling us at this hour that we probably will admit 28 of the patients that we saw. Five of those 28 are in our ICU. We classify of those five, two are in critical condition. Three are in critical serious condition. Three are in serious condition. But we will be admitting at least 28 patients so far from this unfortunate event at West.

BERMAN: And because of the presence of this anhydrous ammonia, this potentially dangerous substance at the plant, there's a lot of concern right now about what types of injuries you were treating, what types of conditions. Any sign of respiratory problems, any sign of skin irritation, any sign of anything that might be connected to this substance?

ROBINSON: No, just that you were noting in the previous interview. Early on, we saw a couple of patients that had irritation of the eyes but as the evening continued we no longer saw those types of symptoms or people presenting are those types of injuries or irritation.

But it is something that we're certainly monitoring. We're keep an eye out for in the hours and the day that we are facing, if something were to change, we will be prepared to take care of those patients. We are not seeing an increase at this time of patients experiencing any sort of irritation or chemical burns.

CUOMO: Well, thank you very much for taking the time. We know it's a very hectic moment for you there right now. Hopefully, the worst is behind you there. Good luck going forward.

BERMAN: One of the concerns right now, Chris, in that area is that severe weather front on the way. Minutes away, potentially, from hitting the town of West, Texas, bringing with it severe winds.

Our Jennifer Delgado is standing by in the weather center for us right now to give us a sense of what they can expect -- Jennifer.


You're right. We are really watching this storm because it's less than an hour away from making its way into West, Texas, as well as Waco, Texas.

Here's out line of showers and thunderstorms. I want to point out right now, winds at 32 miles per hour. The winds are going to be essential, of course, because this fire is not contained. But the winds right now coming out of the Northwest, once we get this front pushing through, the wind direction is going to be blowing it down towards the Southeast.

Now, as I show you right now, we do have this severe thunderstorm watch in place. A lot of the storms moving out on it, but with this we're going to be looking at frequent lightning as well as hail and thunderstorms coming through with so many people outside, not in shelters, keep in mind first responders are out there as well. They need to take cover when this storm moves through.

Now, we are going to track this for you. As we take it through the future, here is West, Texas, moving towards Waco at 6:17. This is why everybody needs to take cover. Keep in mind: we're talking less than an hour away.

As we go through the future, Thursday, 5:00 a.m., by about 7:00 local time, that front will be over towards the east. That means the winds will finally be coming out of the Northwest, going in the direction of the Southeast. But still, we're going to be looking at rain as we go through the morning hours and the winds gusting potentially up to 35 as we go through the afternoon.

And the temperatures are going to be dropping as well. The high temperatures already happened. Overnight lows. We're talking dropping into the 30s behind this frontal system. So here is your look for the day. Notice by 1:00, still some winds up to 24. So, this is going to make containing that fire even more difficult.

But keep in mind, sun rise at 6:55. So about an hour and a half, start to see what things look like on the ground a bit better.

Chris and John, back over to you.

CUOMO: All right. Jennifer, thank you very much.

It's a little bit of a mixed bag. Water obviously helpful in fighting fire but, really, it's more helpful to firefighters by wetting down surrounding areas in wildfire situations to control movement. The wind, it all depends on which way it blows. They're going to have to see the intensity of it and the direction.

BERMAN: And, of course, we are seeing pictures of people being treated right now. It's football field, sports field, open fields right, there are triage right there. People just simply laying on the grass. Wet don't want them outside when the severe weather rolls in. CUOMO: You can see p pictures of what they're dealing with since 07:29 p.m. local time when the fire started all throughout the night, still ongoing, search and rescue.

We're going to take a break. When we come back we will be monitoring the situation there. If you've been watching, it's very fluid. So, we'll get the latest information from the ground.

BERMAN: Stay with us.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: That explosion in West, Texas, at a fertilizer plant so powerful it was measured and registered as an earthquake. That's how powerful it was.