Rescuers in Texas return to the rubble Friday as search for survivors continue after a massive blast at a fertiliser factory killed as many as 15 people and destroyed dozens of homes.
With the country already on edge after the deadly Boston Marathon attacks, the factory exploded Wednesday with the force of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake, devastating much of the small town of West and sending up a toxic cloud.
No one was sure about the figures widely reported as officials refused to release a death toll and rumours flew about who was missing and which bodies have been found. The town is however in mourning, gathering with friends and neighbors at vigils.
“It’s very hard not knowing who’s alive and who isn’t,” said Julie Veselka, 34, hugging her infant daughter while tears streamed down her face, after a packed service at St. Mary’s church concluded.
Authorities said they feared they could find more bodies in the rubble of homes and businesses leveled by the explosion, which may have been sparked by a fire that broke out at the West Fertiliser plant in the southwest US state.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said local schools would remain closed for the remainder of the week, even as much of West was evacuated overnight as an acrid cloud hung over the area.
“Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community,” Perry told a news conference in the state capital Austin, announcing that he was seeking a federal disaster declaration that would make additional funds available.
“This tragedy has most likely hit every family, it has touched practically everyone in that town,” Perry said.
Police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton of nearby Waco said the tragedy killed “anywhere from five to 15” people, but said he expected that toll to rise. Hospitals have treated more than 160 casualties with varying injuries, he said.
McLennan County Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon told reporters the devastated area had been “highly populated” and was “still a very volatile situation” because of the presence of ammonium nitrate, a common but potentially explosive fertiliser ingredient.
Officials said they do not yet know what caused the explosion, but are treating the factory site as a crime scene until they rule out foul play.
The West Fertiliser Company paid more than $5,000 in fines in 2012 after being cited for mislabelled cargo tanks and inadequate transport practices, and had been cited by state authorities for a lack of permit in 2006.
The factory reportedly held large quantities of anhydrous ammonia, a pungent, colorless gas stored in pressurized tanks than can ignite in dense concentrations and under high heat.
The blast was felt up to 80 kilometres away, and an expert at the US Geological Survey said the force of the explosion had registered as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event.
Some 60-75 people have been left homeless by the disaster, according to Mark Felton, director of the local Red Cross chapter.