WEST, Texas - Emergency teams are combing through mountains of debris in a devastated four-block area of West, Texas on Thursday in hopes of finding survivors of an earthquake-like blast at a fertilizer plant that sent a ball of fire and burning embers into nearby homes, killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 160.
The Wednesday evening blast, which rocked the ground with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, could be felt as far as 45 miles away.
Officials said there was no initial indication that the blast was anything but an industrial accident, although agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene investigating the explosion.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said initial reports indicated that the fire and blast may have involved a railroad tanker carrying anhydrous ammonia, an odorless gas that is used in making fertilizer.
A person looks on as emergency workers fight a house fire after a nearby fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday in West, Texas.(Photo: Rod Aydelotte, AP)
Swanton said casualty figures were still preliminary, but that as many as 15 people were believed dead and more than 160 were injured by the explosion that rocked the countryside around this north-central Texas town 80 miles south of Dallas.
Swanton said three to five firefighters were still unaccounted for, but that one missing responder had been located in a local hospital with "serious injuries."
"We risk our lives everyday, those firefighters knew what they were going into," Swanton said. "They went in there to save lives, and that's what they did. A few of them lost their lives in doing so."
Local EMS director George Smith confirmed that two paramedics were among the fatalities.
As a storm front moved through the area Thursday morning, teams were carefully sifting through the charred remains of the explosion for survivors, looking under beds, inside collapsed closets, and rummaging through charred debris for any sign of life.
Swanton said that it was a good sign that emergency teams were still in a "search and rescue" mode because it indicated that they still hoped to find more survivors.
"A lot of tedious, meticulous searching," he said. "They want to make sure they don't miss anyone."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the devastating explosion "truly a nightmare scenario" for the small farming community. He declared a state of emergency for the county and dispatched National Guard troops for assistance.
The governor also said that President Obama called him from Air Force One en route to Boston to offer federal assistance.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his town of 2,800 people needs "your prayers."
Officials said it did not appear that the town was threatened by chemical fumes from the plant, which was still smoldering hours after the explosion.
Emergency teams had responded to a fire call at the plant at 7:29 p.m. CT. The explosion erupted 24 minutes later, as the firefighters, police and paramedics were battling the blaze and attempting to evacuate nearby residents.
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