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Americas

Texas authorities confirm 12 dead in Waco explosion

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-04-19

A dozen people were killed and 200 injured in Wednesday's huge explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas, the Department of Public Safety said Friday. Authorities say the blast was an industrial accident sparked by a fire.

A Texas law enforcement official said on Friday that 12 bodies have been recovered following a massive explosion that leveled a fertilizer plant. About 200 people were injured in the explosion on Wednesday night in the small farming community of West, near Waco, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said.

FRANCE 24 speaks to Jana Whitaker from Providence Healthcare in Waco, Texas

The blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake, leveling homes and businesses for blocks in every direction. Witnesses captured the searing blast and mushroom cloud on their cellphones.

The explosion in downtown West, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Dallas, could be heard dozens of miles away. It sent flames shooting into the night sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris on frightened residents.

Authorities say there’s no indication that the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a yawning crater, was anything other than an industrial accident sparked by a fire. The company apparently has been cited for minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.

Morning revealed a landscape wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings. The explosion sheared away the front of an apartment complex, leaving behind twisted beams, shattered windows and great heaps of broken wood. Cars were battered as if a tornado had spun through town.

Authorities had trouble entering the heart of the blast zone.

“It’s still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Thursday morning.

Among those believed to be dead were three to five volunteer firefighters. The many injuries included broken bones, cut and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care.

In the hours after the blast, residents wandered the dark, windy streets searching for shelter. Among them was Julie Zahirniako, who said she and her son, Anthony, had been at a school playground near the plant when the explosion hit.

It threw her son four feet (over a meter) in the air, breaking his ribs. She said she saw people running from a nursing home, and the roof of the school lifted into the sky.
“The fire was so high,” she said. “It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking.”

Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It was also used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.

The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional, said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, Donahue said.

“The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen,” Donahue said. “That really happens almost instantaneously, and that’s what gives the tremendous force of the explosion.”
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 people needs “your prayers.”

About a half-hour before the blast, the town’s volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant, Swanton said. They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of the plant’s chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding area.

The blast happened 20 minutes later.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board was deploying a large investigation team to the site. An ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions was also expected.

There were no immediate details on the number of people who work at the plant, which was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The agency acted after receiving a complaint in June of that year of a strong ammonia smell.

Federal regulators fined the company $10,000 last year for safety violations, but the government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined that the West Fertilizer Co. planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan. An inspector also found that the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled.

It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.

Other notable fertilizer explosions have included the 2001 explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant that killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France, and the 1947 Texas City disaster, when a fire in a cargo ship holding more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, killing more than 500 people.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-04-18

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