WACO, Texas — A fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday in a central Texas farming town, igniting fires at several nearby buildings and injuring at least 100 people.
Dr. George Smith, the EMS director for the town of West, told KWTX-TV that 60 to 70 were feared dead. Mayor Tommy Muska said at least 60 homes were damaged.
Because of anhydrous ammonia fumes, authorities advised the town of 2,700 residents to evacuate, the TV station reported.
The blast at the plant in West, 19 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles away.
Photos from passengers on nearby Interstate 35 showed a towering gray cloud from the blast.
Debby Marak, 58, told the Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke coming from the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home that was damaged.
She said she drove over to see what was happening. But when she got out of her car, two boys ran toward her screaming that the authorities told them to leave because the plant was going to explode. She said she drove about a block before the blast happened.
"It was like being in a tornado," she said by phone. "Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole earth shook."
More than two hours after the blast, fires smoldered in what was left of the plant and others buildings burning nearby.
In aerial footage from Dallas' NBC affiliate, WDFW, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.
Authorities set up a triage area on the West High School football field, which was lit up with floodlights. Ambulances and several dozen injured people could be seen being taken away or seated in wheelchairs as they are treated and await transport.
Department of Public Safety troopers used their cruisers to transport some injured people to hospitals in Waco, Gayle Scarbrough, a spokeswoman for the department's Waco office, told KWTX. She said six helicopters were also en route.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received more 40 more people for treatment, both by ambulance and private vehicle. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes.
The explosion knocked out power to many area customers and could be heard and felt for miles around.
Brad Smith, who lives 45 miles north of West in Waxahachie, told the station that he and his wife heard what sounded like a thunderclap.
In 2001, an explosion at a chemical plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast occurred in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives.
The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.