William M. Welch, USA TODAY
Explosions rocked a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on Wednesday evening as firefighters were battling an onsite blaze. The incident left at least 160 injured and 5 to 15 dead, police say.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said early Thursday morning that the death toll is only an estimate as search and rescue operations remain under way in downtown West.
Swanton says there is no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, but the ATF will be investigating.
Photos: Texas fertilizer plant explosion
"The injuries that we are seeing are very serious,'' said Glenn Robinson, CEO of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. "There are a number of patients that will be going to surgery. ... It's a very, very unfortunate situation.''
Texas Trooper D.L. Wilson said he expected casualty numbers to grow as emergency workers go house to house in the area. Wilson confirmed at least 50 houses were damaged and a 50-unit apartment building was decimated. Another briefing was scheduled for 10 a.m. local time.
Wilson said the damage was comparable to the destruction caused by the 1995 bomb blast that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Mayor Tommy Muska said rescuers were doing house-by-house search and rescue in a heavily damaged area around the plant. He said the explosion sent up a ball of fire.
Muska, who is also a firefighter in the small town, said there was heavy damage in a five or six block area. There is concern, he said, about chemical fumes in an area north of the plant, and he urged residents to stay indoors.
He said 133 people were in the West Rest Haven Nursing Home located near the fertilizer plant at time of explosion. It was being evacuated after the fire started - and before the explosion - at the plant.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said state officials were waiting for details about the extent of the damage.
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement. "We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene."
Wilson, the trooper, said half the town had been evacuated due to damage or the threat posed by fumes from the burning plant.
"When that northwind changes, we might have to evacuate the other side of town,'' Wilson said.
Robinson said that 10 or 12 of the injured were in critical condition. Two people were in surgery as he spoke and two more were awaiting surgery, he said.
He said an unknown number of people with minor injuries were being treated at a triage center set up by emergency medical personnel at a triage center set up at a nearby high school football field.
Two children were transferred to a pediatric hospital in Temple, Texas, he said.
Dani Moore, dispatcher with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said there were multiple damages to structures and vehicles. She said she had no information on the cause of the blasts or fire.
"The fertilizer plant was on fire. Firefighters were on the scene. There was an explosion ... followed by a second explosion,'' she said.
Five or six volunteer firefighters were at the plant fire when the explosion happened and not all have been accounted for, according to Muska.
There were reports that at least one blast was heard 45 miles away.
WFAA.com reported at least 10 structures were on fire.
Among the damaged buildings was what appeared to be a housing complex with a collapsed roof, a nearby middle school and the nursing home.
The fertilizer plant is about 20 miles north of Waco and just off Interstate 35.
KWTX.com reported state troopers transported some of the injured to hospitals in patrol cars.
"We've been sending out troopers left and right,'' Moore said.
The explosion knocked out electrical power in part of the community of 2,800 people.
Of the first 45 patients to arrive at Hillcrest, 25 of them came by private vehicle and 20 by ambulance, Robinson said.
He said most of the injured appeared to have blast-caused injuries.
Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Perry's office, said personnel from several agencies were en route to West or already there, including the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, the state's emergency management department and an incident management team. Also responding is the state's top urban search and rescue team, the state health department and mobile medical units.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas were also heading to the scene. 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. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.
"West has been in my backyard all my life," tweeted music legend Willie Nelson, who grew up about five miles north of West. "My heart is praying for the community that we call home."
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.
Contributing: Associated Press