WEST, Texas — Rescue workers searched through the rubble of a fertilizer company and the devastated town around it Thursday, looking for missing firefighters and survivors of a huge explosion that tore through this small north central Texas town Wednesday night, killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 180 others.
At an afternoon news conference, officials did not update earlier estimates that five to 15 people had been killed in the blast, and would confirm only that fatalities had occurred. Scores of people have been treated at area hospitals.
Homes and businesses were leveled in the normally quiet town of West, 19 miles north of Waco, and there was widespread damage in the downtown area from the force of the blast, Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said Thursday.
"At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue," he said.
Three to five firefighters were missing, he said earlier in the day, mostly first responders from a volunteer fire department who rushed to the scene before the blast.
"They were actively fighting the fire at the time the explosion occurred," he said.
As many as 75 homes have been damaged, along with several businesses and a 50-unit apartment complex. Storefronts were boarded up nearly a mile from the blast site.
"I saw a red flash behind me and the whole ground shook," said Mark Kostecka, 46, a building maintenance worker who was arriving home for dinner at the time of the blast. "It was like an atom bomb going off."
Jack Stone, a member of a roofing company crew that had driven in from Waco to repair damaged homes, said, "It looked like a hurricane came through."
The White House issued a statement from President Barack Obama that said, "Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas," and he pledged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies would join state and local efforts "to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue."
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas called the explosion "a truly nightmare scenario," and said information about death and injury is "very preliminary." But he said that because West is so small, "this tragedy has most likely hit every family. It has touched practically everybody in that town."
Obama, he said, had phoned him from Air Force One, on his way to Boston, to offer his support.
The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, said in brief televised remarks that 50 to 60 houses in a five-block area were heavily damaged, and that search-and-rescue teams worked through the night. A nursing home with 133 residents was among the buildings hit. The fate of those within it was, like so much on the scene, not immediately clear.
Many of the wounded were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, where more than 250 physicians and staff members responded to provide medical care. Twenty-eight people were admitted and remained at the hospital Thursday, including five who were being treated in the intensive care unit, according to hospital officials.
In addition, two pediatric trauma patients were transferred to a children's hospital in Temple, 12 nursing home residents were treated and discharged to other nursing homes, and more than 50 other people were treated and released.
A spokesman for the FBI in San Antonio said Thursday morning that there has been no indication of criminal activity in the plant explosion.
The spokesman, Special Agent Erik Vasys, said the agency has personnel on-scene to assist local officials if needed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is on the scene, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal entity that investigates chemical disasters, said it has sent its own investigative team to the site.
The Red Cross in the Dallas and Fort Worth region said in a statement posted online that it had crews on the way to help. Red Cross workers were looking for a safe place to house residents who had been displaced.
Swanton said the town would help its own.
"I can promise you that the city of West will not let a person stand out in the rain," he said. "They will bring you into their home, and you will be comfortable."
Zak Covar, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said during the governor's news conference that the company has been in business since 1962 and is one of a number of small fertilizer companies across rural Texas.
The company has "an average compliance history," with one air quality complaint registered in 2006. In that episode, on June 9, 2006, according to state records, residents complained to the commission about the "ammonia smell" that was "very bad last night."
That occurrence was investigated by the agency and resolved with the granting of two air permits to the company by the end of that year, Covar said.