Rescue crews in Texas are responding to a large explosion with the strength of a small earthquake at a fertilizer plant near Waco, Texas, that caused numerous injuries on Wednesday night.
The explosion occurred in West, Texas, which is about 20 miles north of Waco and 80 miles south of Dallas.
Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said the blast killed 5 to 15 people and left more than 160 others taken to area hospitals.
"They are still getting injured folks out and they are evacuating people from their homes," Swanton said early Thursday.
A group of volunteer firefighters and one law enforcement officer who responded to a fire call at the call about an hour before the blast are believed to be dead. One missing responder was reported found after 8:00 a.m. Thursday, while the others remain missing.
EMTs in the area at the time said they saw broken glass everywhere, several homes on fire, and they described the mood as chaotic.
The explosion seared a four-block area around the plant, including 50-75 homes, an apartment complex reduced to "a skeleton' a middle school and West Haven Nursing Home. First responders evacuated 133 from the nursing home, some in wheelchairs.
DPS troopers responding to the scene loaded victims into squad cars and took them directly to hospitals as emergency crews from the surrounding area rushed to the area.
West is a small community with a population of 3,000.
A hotline has been set up for family members to get information on loved ones at 254-202-1100.
KWTX reported that a frantic radio call made at 7:50 p.m. from the scene of a fire at West Fertilizer, located at 1471 Jerry Mashek Dr., alerted authorities. Homes near the plant were evacuated, but some were leveled and badly damaged. Gayle Scarbrough, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, confirmed that at least six helicopters were requested.
At an evening news conference held three hours after the explosion, West Mayor Tommy Muska said Sky4 cameras saw an apartment complex blown apart.
A triage area for medical response was set up at a nearby football field, but it was later evacuated after a smell of natural gas was noticed by authorities and moved to a community center nearby.
Dallas Fire Rescue and the Dallas chapter of the Red Cross were asked to make the over 70-mile trek to the small town to assist.
The explosion sent flames shooting into the sky, knocked out power to many customers in the area and was both heard and felt as far as 45 miles away.
More than two hours after the explosion was reported, fires were still raging at the fertilizer plant.
The school district in West said all campuses will be closed on Thursday and Friday. Further announcements from the district will be made this weekend.
Gov. Rick Perry released the following statement regarding the incident in West, Texas:
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. 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."
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke in the area across town near the plant, which is near a nursing home. She said she drove over to see what was happening, and that when she got there, two boys came running toward her screaming that the authorities ordered everyone out because the plant was going to explode.
She said she drove about a block when the blast happened.
"It was like being in a tornado," Marak, 58, said by phone. "Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield. It was like the whole Earth shook."
In fact, it did. A seismometer in Amarillo, Texas, registered the explosion from 400 miles away.
Marak drove 10 blocks and called her husband and asked him to come get her. When they got to their home about 2 miles south of town, her husband told her what he'd seen: a huge fireball that rose like "a mushroom cloud."
The explosion caused the roof of what appeared to be a housing complex of some kind to collapse. In aerial footage from NBC's Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, KXAS, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.
The FAA placed temporary flight restrictions over the scene. Only emergency aircraft were allowed in the restricted 3-mile radius. Traffic was also backed up in both ways on Interstate 35.
By 11 p.m. local time, Muska told members of the press that the fires in town were under control.
DPS officials held a late-night press conference to say they have evacuated all the injured and do not need additional resources beyond those already en route. Rescuers plan to search throughout the night for victims who may be trapped in collapsed buildings, but a line of thunderstorms is forecasted to pass through the area and toxic fumes are still emanating from the smoldering plant.
D.L. Wilson, with the Texas Department of Public Safety, described the injuries as "tremendous." He confirmed Wednesday night that there were fatalities in the explosion, but he did not have an exact number.
FOX 4 News: Injuries, building damage in fertilizer plant explosion
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.