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Fertilizer Plant Explodes in Texas; Rescue Efforts Continue After Fertilizer Plant Explosion in Texas

Aired April 18, 2013 - 07:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Chris Cuomo here in Boston, part of CNN's continuing coverage of the attacks at the Boston marathon.

BERMAN: We're following two major developing stories this morning. First, breaking news overnight. A fertilizer plant explodes in the town of West, Texas, leveling surrounding homes. At least five to 15 people dead, more than 160 injured, thousands of people evacuated, and rescue crews still searching for the missing. And the threat, you know, is not over yet as dangerous gas may still be in the air.

CUOO: And explosion followed that fire.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's horrific. Some of the things that I've been told, some of the things I've seen are unbearable.


CUOMO: This is a small community. Less than 3,000 people, but they are fighting their best. They have the fire somewhat under control. The surrounding town of Waco helping out. We've been getting updates throughout the morning. Search and rescue, as we've said, very active there.

BERMAN: Expecting a live update from the scene in West, Texas, at any moment.

Meanwhile, here in Boston where we've been the last few days, this investigation here does continue and what's being called by authorities as a possible breakthrough in the bombing case. Investigators right now looking into two people who they say may be connected. This all happening as the president prepares to attend an interfaith prayer service here this morning.

CUOMO: All this news going on, on this morning, Thursday, April 18th, this special edition of STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome to this special edition of STARTING POINT live here in Boston. I am Chris Cuomo.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. We want to welcome our viewers watching us both in the United States and all around the world.

CUOMO: A big day of news this morning. We begin, of course, with the breaking news from Texas this morning. Search and rescue teams working through the night in west, Texas, which is near Waco, following a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. Leveled homes and buildings was felt up to 50 miles away, an explosion so powerful it registered as an earthquake.

Right now they do believe there's loss of life. They cannot tell how much. Early estimates between five and 15, but we know more than 170 people have been treated at area hospitals, some children and adults still in critical condition. Police say they are treating it as a crime scene only as a precaution. They don't know what caused the fire. They are just dealing with fighting it right now.

BERMAN: And they still have many questions about this event.

CUOMO: Firefighters, who are among the first responders, are there, some unaccounted for. So we will be follow that with reports from the scene right away.

BERMAN: We have live team coverage covering every angle the way only CNN can. We have George Howell live in Waco with us standing by with an update on the medical situation there. We're going to begin in West with Martin Savidge on the ground near the scene. What is the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, it's been such a difficult night. It is only going to become an even more difficult day. Once daylight comes here, that's when people are really going to be able to see the devastation that has ripped out the heart of their community and, also, when we believe that the death toll, and it is expected to rise, as investigators will have the opportunity to go door to door.

The search and rescue is still under way and there is some positive news, a small sliver of it the mayor delivered just homes ago.


SAVIDGE: 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.

MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA, WEST, TEXAS: 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: We just saw an 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 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.

D.I. WILSON, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: 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: One of buildings was located right next to that fertilizer plant where a nursing home with at least 130 patients and also there was an apartment building. The mayor briefed us on the nursing home. Here's what he said.


MUSKA: The rest home, nursing home, has evacuated and taken all patients out to safe locations. All residents in that area have been evacuated and are in safe locations. I do not have an exact number of casualties at this time or hurt. We took over 160 to Waco hospitals, area hospitals, for treatment. Search and rescue teams have been working through the night combing the west rest haven as well as the fire -- the fertilizer plant, and also a thorough check of the neighborhood. That is continuing as we speak.


SAVIDGE: Devastation, John, is going to be palpable both physically and mentally by this community because, remember, volunteer fire departments, volunteer ems, friends and neighbors, they were the ones that responded first to this disaster. They were the ones right there when that plant exploded. That's the reason why you have missing and dead among the first responders. John?

BERMAN: Martin, as you said, it is a small town. When you have 50 to 60 homes heavily damaged in a small town like that, as you know, Chris, that's a big percentage of the homes right down there.

CUOMO: Think about it. They had to evacuate half of the town because of this, 1,300 people, and its' still far from over. Let's get to CNN's George Howell live from Waco, Texas, where many of the injuries have been taken to the hillcrest medical center. George, what are you hearing? GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, you know, to our count, 173 patients were sent off to various hospitals. Here at Hillcrest Baptist, they saw the most, 101 patients, who we understand, five of them are in intensive care, two are in critical condition and three others are in serious condition. Also at Providence Hospital, they saw 65 patients. They admitted 12 patients. At Scott and White, which is the level one trauma center, five patients there, Chris. We understand that two of them are children in critical condition, three adults, two of those adults in critical condition and one in stable condition.

Two patients were rushed to Dallas, Texas, at Parkland Hospital, still unclear. But we are now starting to get a better indication of how many people were rushed to hospitals and even a better indication, early on, but better indication of casualties. Early on investigators they said as many as 70 casualties. Now we're hear that number, 5 to 15 and 3 to five firefighters are still missing, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, thank you very much for the report. We'll be back to you. We know you're monitoring the situation. Thanks for doing it.

One of the best ways to understand how dire this situation is there, there's literally what you will see on the face of the next witness that we're going to listen to. He is the EMS director, he is a doctor. His name is George Smith. And he immediately responded to the situation. He's been fighting all night. Listen to what he told our affiliate KCBN TV, this incredible story of what he saw and what he did, and just look at his face.


DR. GEORGE SMITH, WITNESS TO TEXAS EXPLOSION: There was just a major, major explosion. 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. That whole street is gone. We got a lot of people still trapped in houses but that's dangerous material, hazardous material. We can't get to them right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you ever seen anything like this before?

SMITH: No. I was at Katrina afterwards with the disaster medical assistance team with FEMA, but it's -- it's just overwhelming. For a town of 2300, we have three ambulances and there are literally hundreds of people hurt. I know -- I don't have -- I haven't been there but I'm very worried that my ambulance that was on scene and those personnel are probably deceased. I think some of the firemen may be deceased. I was inside a building quite a ways from it. I know a lot of houses are in bad shape, the ambulance building is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What would you compare this to?

SMITH: An atom bomb, a bomb.

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

SMITH: Overwhelmed. Try to do the best I can. They're trying to get me down because I'm bleeding. I got a job to do. There are people more hurt than me that I need to get but I can't communicate with my people. Radios are not working. I don't know where my people are at to get back to them.


BERMAN: What will you compare this to? Dr. George Smith says an atom bomb. He sees that and he works through the night to try to help people even while his own force of the ems workers are not all accounted for at this moment. That was Texas EMS director George Smith. He was speaking just after the explosion. And a little while later we caught up with him again by phone as he was being treated for his own injuries in the hospital. He told us more about what he saw.


SMITH: One little boy, I understand, got up and was thrown through a wall. And one child actually got thrown through the wall of his house into the yard. His family member picked him up and grandparents drove him by private party to a regional hospital. He was critical and the grandparents were critical.

It was a volunteer fire department and volunteer ambulance service. Most of them were blast injuries. The windows imploded. The ceiling fell down. The ceiling fell, and that resulted in at least one broken leg, broken femur, upper thigh. And something fell on them. There may be as many as anywhere between seven and ten nursing home residents not accounted for. They may have been picked up by other members but we don't know. It was very, very hectic.


CUOMO: And just the look on his face, Dr. George Smith there, you heard him speaking at the developing situation. He didn't get treated himself even though he needed stitches in his face because he wanted to help as much as he could. That's the spirit going on down there in Texas as they try and fight back flames and deal with potential exposure of chemicals and the explosion that rocked the entire community.

Further complicating their efforts this morning, the next factor, weather, heavy winds, rain coming their way, dropping temperatures. Let's go to Jennifer Delgado and get a good understanding of what may be coming their way. Jennifer?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Chris, hi John. The rain is already starting to make its way into the region of West, Texas, as well as Waco, Texas. I want to point out to you the winds right now, 24 coming out of the northwest with some gusts at 32. We're certain to see the winds become more variable. They will shift out of the northwest fully over the next hour. You can see the shower and thunderstorms moving in. The worst is still to come.

As I said to you earlier, we're out of the severe thunderstorm watch. Notice as I said, look at all that lightning out there. This is why so many people need to take cover with the lightning and the hail and the gusty winds. I know a lot of people have lost their homes and many people, responders, are outside, but this is certainly something you need to be aware of because we're talking potentially dangerous situation.

As we sweep there you can see some of the heavier rainfall starting to work in to parts of West, Texas. As we show you the winds right now you can kind of get an idea. They're trying to make that for areas like Waco and Dallas. They're going to shift a bit sooner than that.

As we go throughout the morning, we are going to continue to see rain moving through the area up until about 9:00. And then after that, we're really going to be dealing with the gusty winds. But the temperatures are going to be significantly cooler than what they were yesterday. Notice we will see some of the 60s and the overnight lows getting very close to about 38 degrees. Keep in mind sun rise still roughly about 35 minutes away at 6:55.

Chris, John, we'll continue to track the storms. We'll send it back over to you.

BERMAN: Jennifer Delgado, thanks very much.

One of the big concerns on the ground right now in West, Texas, from this fertilizer plant is a substance that was inside this plant, this anhydrous ammonia, which is used as fertilizer but can be very, very dangerous. To give us a sense of how dangerous, senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us right now.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We know a lot about this chemical because unfortunately it's involved in explosions with some frequency, a very commonly used industrial chemical. So the impact that it has all depends on how much you breathe in. If you breathe in a lot of it, you can die instantly. If you breathe in -- if you breathe in less of it, then it can irritate your eyes, it can irritate your nose, it can irritate your throat, but, you know that will go away quickly. So it all depends on the wind and the temperature at the time that it's released.

CUOMO: What does it mean that we haven't been hearing about a second wave of exposure at the hospitals? We heard from the CEO of the hospital, they saw some people early on, none since.

COHEN: Hopefully what that means is that the people who were there at the initial explosion were affected and we heard them talking about treating people for eye irritation and trying to get that out of their eyes. Hopefully those are the only people and that's it. That's what we pray for, is that that's it.

BERMAN: Let's hope it's not a concern we have to continue to face down there in west, Texas, right now with so much of that substance. There were 50,000 pounds on the scene at one point in the fertilizer plant. Elizabeth Cohen, our thanks to you.

CUOMO: The easiest way to demonstrate just how powerful it was, with this explosion, when this chemical went up, when this fertilizer went up, the blast could be felt 50 miles away, so powerful it was detected by equipment used to measure earthquakes, literally, the U.S. Geological Survey.

BERMAN: That's right, the U.S. geological Survey described it as a magnitude 2.1 seismic event. Look at that chart. The first little blips, that's the ground shaking. Then you see a pause and then you see really the boom, the sound wave coming through. So really it hit twice. Registered at stations that usually measure underground seismic events that were not close, miles and miles away.

CUOMO: Boy, oh, boy. The tragedy there being felt and responded to not just in Texas. Actually prompted Pope Francis to send out a special message to his more than 2 million followers on Twitter about it.

BERMAN: This morning the pontiff tweeted, quote, "Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families." That from the pope.

CUOMO: It is still very much ongoing there for them. They're going to have new fresh eyes on the situation as they get light down there. And then they will have to deal with the weather. Here ahead on STARTING POINT we will have continuing coverage of that devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. We will give you the latest on the recovery and the search and rescue.

BERMAN: Chris and I are standing here in Boston. We are following the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing. What authorities say could be a break in the case. The latest on the investigation as this special edition of STARTING POINT continues.

CUOMO: Stay with CNN.


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



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. We are continuing to follow the latest on our breaking news. A huge plant blast at a fertilizer facility in West, Texas. Massive explosion there. A small town, less than 3,000 people, just north of Waco. Officials don't know about how many are dead but they know somewhere between 5 and 15. Developing situation. More than 160 people have been injured, treated at local hospitals. But still ongoing situation, John.

BERMAN: That's right. A search and rescue operation underway. Homes and businesses have simply been leveled. Now, while that's going on, new developments in what authorities call perhaps the possible breakthrough in the investigation here in the Boston Marathon terror attacks. Investigators pinpointing now two men they say caught on camera near the finish line. There are pictures coming from an analysis of surveillance video from a Lord &Taylor department store near the site of the second blast, along with video they also have from a local TV station. Those pictures are now in the hands of the federal agents.

CUOMO: In the images, one of the men are reportedly seen carrying a black backpack. Investigators say this pressure cooker bomb was being held inside of a black nylon backpack, a bag that triggered their interest (ph). Photo for you to check out. Taken by a man who was watching. His wife participating in the marathon. It shows what looks like a bag inside the barricades. Can you see it? We tried to highlight it for you.

The man says he took the picture an hour to an hour and a half before the second explosion. It appeared to be the same bag that's outside the barricades in these WHDH-TV pictures. The newly-discovered image has been turned over to investigators.

BERMAN: In a few hours the public (ph) will get a chance to gather and to pray in an interfaith service here in Boston. President Obama will be in attendance along with many others including Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate. CNN will bring you that service live.

CUOMO: Here in Boston, many of the people who came here just for the marathon have not left. There is a sense of connection here now to what's going on. Some of it is waiting to see what happens, if there's a discovery. But it's now just feeling the sense of moving on and being here together.

Susan Candiotti has seen the pictures of the two men that we were just showing you. She joins us now. Susan, what do these images show to your eye?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're very interesting because, of course, they're standing in a huge crowd of people. And you've got two men who are standing there as described to us also by investigators, the reason they're interested is because it's near the finish line around where all those flags are that you've been seeing time and again right near the finish line. And what's piquing the interest among other things is that they're carrying bags with them. One of them is a dark colored backpack and another one appears to be a duffel bag. The reason this is significant, of course, is we've been hearing for a few days now from our investigative sources that they are -- have an interest in looking at a black nylon backpack or bag of some kind because they found remnants of those. We've seen those in the evidence scene photograph, crime scene photographs, Chris.

BERMAN: All right. Susan Candiotti for us live here in Boston right now where this investigation right now, very much continuing with these photos that have now been passed around to federal agents all around the country that show two people of interest that authorities right now want to know more about.

CUOMO: Very interesting where they're getting this information from. It's not just developing sources. Lord &Taylor comes forward with their cameras. Volunteering the information. People looking back at their photos. This man realizes he may have something of significance. Gives it to the authorities. Now they're acting on it.

BERMAN: All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, a lot going on this morning. Not just an investigation here in Boston but we will have continuing coverage of the Texas fertilizer plant explosion. Casualties down there. Many, many people injured. We're following that story and many more this morning.

CUOMO: We also have news of an arrest in the ricin scare in the nation's capitol. We will give you the latest. You are watching a special edition of STARTING POINT on CNN.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: Welcome back. I'm Chris Cuomo with John Berman here in Boston. The big story this morning breaking news, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small Texas town of West, just north of Waco.

BERMAN: Officials right now giving a preliminary estimate of 5 to 15 people killed. But again, it is early. That number possibly could rise. Number of injured very high, also. More than 160 people have been injured, taken to local area hospitals and there is a search and rescue operation underway which will get more intense as daylight comes up there.

CUOMO: You have to imagine this is a very small town. Less than 3,000 people. They only have three ambulances. Luckily responding around the area, people came with first responders, the equipment that they needed, able to help get people to local hospitals. But 50 to 60 of their homes in this tiny community heavily damaged. Some of them they are not able to search yet because they're dealing with chemicals in the area, potential future explosions. Very difficult there. They were doing it overnight in the dark. Very fluid situation. We're going to be following that all morning for you. But there are other stories developing around the world. So let's get to Christine Romans in New York for the other stories, headlines this morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Let's start in Mississippi where a man is under arrest in connection with a ricin scare in the nation's capitol. Letters addressed to President Obama and Mississippi Senator Roger Eicker were intercepted at a mail processing facility after tests indicated the presence of the poison. The letters are undergoing additional testing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Any time a suspicious powder is located in a mail facility, it is tested. And I would underscore that the mail is screened. The mail sent here is screened and these tests are undertaken at remote sites to mitigate the risk to both the recipients and to the general population.


ROMANS: The FBI says results of the additional testing on the envelopes could be released later today.

President Obama vowing to fight on after a gun control bill went down in defeat. The Senate voted down a compromise to expand background checks and ban military style assault weapons. The president says the gun lobby lied about the bill and that senators from both parties caved to political pressure.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. This effort is not over. I want to make it clear to the American people, we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence so long as the American people don't give up on it.


ROMANS: The president said he would push to make it easier for states to use current background check laws.

Another huge story developing in Texas this morning. A major break in the case of three high-profile killings in Kaufman County. The wife of a disgraced former justice of the peace is pinning the crimes on her husband. Authorities say Kim Williams knew details about the shootings of a prosecutor, a D.A. and his wife that weren't made public and she confessed that her husband Eric pulled the trigger. She is charged with capital murder. Her husband, Eric Williams, is in jail on a terroristic threat charge. Investigators say an e-mail threatening more attacks was traced back to him. We're expecting more information on this, this afternoon. Back to you guys in Boston.

BERMAN: All right, thanks so much, Christine.

Ahead on STARTING POINT we will have more on the breaking news of the morning, this massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of Eest, Texas. Many, many people injured. Search and rescue operation under way. We'll bring you the latest. Stay with us.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm John Berman.

CUOMO: I'm Chris Cuomo. Following developing stories here in Boston, but mostly in Texas this morning. The tiny town of West right now, rescue workers are going door to door looking for people who may be trapped in their homes after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. First there was a fire, then a blast so powerful it registered as a 2.1 magnitude seismic event. Like an earthquake.

BERMAN: Look at those pictures. Simply amazing.