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April 18, 2013

Search and rescue teams in Texas are looking for survivors and missing people amid buildings where walls and roofs have been torn away and other buildings have been flattened by an explosion at a fertilizer plant. Firefighters are among the missing and authorities fear that five to 15 people could be dead.

Image of Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Disaster Radius in West, Texas

Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Disaster Radius in West, Texas

"We have confirmed fatalities at this time. We don't have the exact amount," Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reys said at a news conference this afternoon.

The explosion devastated the area that officials described as a highly-populated neighborhood.

"It ranges from broken windows to complete devastation," Waco Police Department Sgt. William Swanton said at a news conference today. "There are homes that are no longer homes."

At some buildings, "walls were ripped off, roofs were peeled back," the sergeant said.

The fire and explosion Wednesday night in a small town north of Waco prompted widespread evacuations and sent more than 160 injured people to hospitals.

The blast at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas, occurred just before 8 p.m., but officials still were struggling to tally the dead and injured early this morning and searching door-to-door amid the rubble for survivors, police said.

Swanton said the five to 15 deaths is a "rough number" and they are unverified.

"I don't have a number of how many they have rescued or how many potential bodies they have found," he said.

"There are still firefighters missing," Swanton said.

He said an estimated three or four who are missing are volunteer firefighters, "meaning that they probably have a very large contingent of people that are willing to risk their lives for the neighbors and community."

They are the first responders who were battling the fire when the explosion occurred, he said.

A firefighter and law enforcement officer who was previously mentioned as missing has been found, Swanton said. He is in a hospital with "pretty serious injuries," he added.

Swanton said authorities are still in search-and-rescue mode and are not yet in recovery mode.

"The town is secure. There are plenty of law enforcement officials that are stationed around the town," Swanton said. "There is no fire out of control. There is no chemical escape from the fertilizer plant that is out of control."

The Red Cross, mental health agencies and grief counselors are on hand to help the community, in addition to the neighbors who are already assisting each other.

"That is a very tight-knit, very family packed, family-oriented community," Swanton said of the town of about 2,800 people. "They are leaning on each other’s' shoulders."

West EMS Director Dr. George Smith, himself injured and bloody, said he had not personally seen bodies to confirm deaths, but believed the blast killed at least two emergency responders to a fire at the plant before the initial explosion and a person at a nearby apartment complex that suffered serious damage.

In addition, some responders to the fire were believed unaccounted for after the blast, according to Smith, Swanton and West Mayor Tommy Muska.

As they gained access to the explosion site, officials said they were treating it as a crime scene.

Image of City of West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

City of West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

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