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Firefighters seek colleagues' bodies as search for Texas bodies continues

The community of West still doesn’t know how many people may have died, as rescuers carefully work through piles of debris.

A smashed car sits in front of an apartment complex destroyed by an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, as firefighters conduct a search and rescue mission.
A smashed car sits in front of an apartment complex destroyed by an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, as firefighters conduct a search and rescue mission.
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero

THE DEATH TOLL from the massive explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas remains unknown, as rescue workers carefully work through piles of debris to try and find the remains of those killed in the blast.

Initial reports put the fatalities as high as 15, but authorities have since backed away from offering any concrete estimate of the number of fatalities. More than 160 people were injured, many gravely.

Rescuers searching the smoking remnants of the plant and nearby buildings have been gingerly checking smashed houses and apartments, looking for anyone still trapped in debris while the local community awaited word on the number of dead.

A breathtaking band of destruction extended for blocks around the West Fertiliser Company, which was obliterated by the explosion – which shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake, and crumpled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home.

Waco police Sergeant William Patrick Swanton described ongoing search-and-rescue efforts as “tedious and time-consuming,” noting that crews had to shore up much of the wreckage before going in.

There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

The explosion was apparently touched off by a fire, but there was no indication what sparked the blaze. The company had been cited by regulators for what appeared to be minor safety and permitting violations over the past decade.

Wednesday night’s explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. The landscape yesterday was wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings.

‘You’re strong through it because that’s your job’

Firefighter Darryl Hall choked up as he described the search.

“You’re strong through it because that’s your job. That’s what you’ve been trained to do. But you’re reminded of the tragedy and your family. And that it could be you,” Hall said. “Then it’s a completely different story.”

While the community tended to its deep wounds, investigators awaited clearance to enter the blast zone for clues to what set off the plant’s huge stockpile of volatile chemicals.

“It’s still too hot to get in there,” said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, later adding that she wasn’t sure when her team would be able to start its investigation.

The precise death toll was uncertain. Three to five volunteer firefighters initially were believed to be among the dead, which authorities said could number as many as 15. But the state Department of Public Safety later said the number of fatalities couldn’t be confirmed.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department said one of its off-duty firefighters, Captain Kenny Harris, was among those killed. Harris — a 52-year-old married father of three grown sons — lived in West and had decided to lend a hand to the volunteers battling the blaze.

The many injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. A few people were reported in intensive care and several more in critical condition.

Additional reporting by AP

Read: Tragedies sparked by fertiliser explosions around the world

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Gavan Reilly

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