WEST, TEXAS -- Search and rescue teams from across the state were "methodically" searching heavily damaged buildings for survivors Thursday morning, some 15 hours after a powerful blast at a fertilizer plant in the small central Texas town of West.
The fatality count stood at "five to 15" at first light, but was expected to rise, officials said. More than 160 people in the town of about 2,800 were injured in the blast, which registered 2.1 on the earthquake scale.
Gary Adair, son of the plant's owner, told the Star-Telegram that the plant, the decades-old West Fertilizer Co., had been closed for about three hours when the explosion occurred. He said the family had no idea what prompted the fire and explosion.
Several of the volunteer firefighters who had responded to the initial fire remained unaccounted for Thursday, Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said.
One of those firefighters is Morris Bridges. His son, Brent Bridges, 18, said the family has been told that he is still missing and probably didn't make it.
During a 11:45 a.m. news conference in Austin, Gov. Rick Perry said West has been declared a disaster area.
"Last nights disaster was truly a nightmare scenario, but we are blessed in Texas to have the best emergency response teams in the nation," Perry said.
Swanton said Texas Task Forces 1 and 2, the Burleson Fire Department heavy rescue unit and Fort Hood search and rescue workers were "methodically" searching house to house for survivors.
Some structures, including a 15-unit apartment building, had to be reinforced before they could safely enter, he said.
Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were in West assisting with the investigation, Swanton said.
He said the firefighters and the injured constable were at the scene fighting a fire when the plant exploded Wednesday night.
"There are true heroes out there today," Swanton said. "And they are civilians saving lives with us."
Adair, the owner's son, said he rushed to the plant after seeing the explosion Wednesday. It had obviously been leveled, he said.
He and his 6-year-old grandson then headed to the town's community center, where some of the injured were being taken.
He helped load up those injured in the blast as they arrived in cars and in the back of pickups. They were mostly residents from a nearby nursing home that had been severely damaged.
He arrived home about 4 a.m. He said he was with his father, who was too distraught to talk.
"Everybody in town basically knows everybody," Adair said, his words dissolving into sobs. "It's really rough. It's a tragedy."
Though he awaits confirmation like the rest of the town, Adair said he had a pretty good idea of who are among the dead.
"There are people you know just like a brother," he said.
A fire broke out at the plant at 7:29 p.m. and the West Fire Department responded. As they fought the fire, the plant exploded. Swanton said the first call about the explosion was logged at 7:53 p.m.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said 50-60 homes were damaged in a five-block radius of the blast.
Ricky Adams was driving his Ford F-150 pickup to a Knights of the Columbus meeting and was only about a block from the plant when it exploded.
"It sucked the ceiling down over my head, threw me into the dashboard and shattered the back window," he said. "I never felt anything like it in my life."
His mother-in-law and her sister share at room at the nursing home that was damaged in the blast, he said. His mother-in-law was ok, but her sister was injured and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital.