Story Summary

Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

At least 14 people were killed and at least 140 injured during a massive explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. The explosion damaged buildings for blocks in every direction. Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area sustained damage, officials said.

Among those killed was a Marist High School graduate. Former Plainfield resident Kevin W. Sanders was among the first responders at the scene who lost their lives.

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Funeral services were held Thursday for one of the first responders killed during the Texas fertilizer plant explosion.

Mourners made their way to Sacred Heart Church in Plainfield.

Firefighter Kevin Sanders was a Palos Hills native, and worked for Plainfield Emergency Management before moving to Texas.

Visitation was held for him Tuesday at the Plainfield Fire Headquarters.

Sanders was one of 14 killed in that plant explosion.

A visitation will be held Tuesday for a firefighter from the Chicago area, who was killed in a fertilizer plant explosion.

Kevin Sanders was among the first responders who died in West, Texas, nearly two weeks ago.

Sanders was a former resident of Palos Hills and Plainfield.

He had served with Plainfield’s emergency management agency for about five years, where he assisted police with big events and traffic control.

He moved to Texas several years ago.

Visitation is Tuesday afternoon at the Plainfield Administration Headquarters.

The funeral is Wednesday at Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills.

The body of a first responder returned home to the Chicago area, a week after he was killed in the Texas fertilizer plant explosion and fire.

KevinSandersUpon his return Saturday at O’Hare Airport, Kevin Sanders was given a full honors escort by local first responders.

Sanders, 33, was a former resident of Palos Hills and Plainfield, and graduated from Marist High School in Chicago.

He served in Plainfield’s emergency management agency for about five years.

He moved to Texas several years ago, and he later became a volunteer for the Bruceville-Eddy Fire Department.

He was in the middle of an an EMT class at the time of the blasts, and quickly rushed to the scene.

He leaves behind a wife and an infant son.

Visitation will be held next Tuesday at the plainfield administration headquarters.

A funeral will take place on Wednesday at Sacred Heart Church in Palos Hills.

A memorial service was held Thursday for a Marist High School graduate and 13 other people who were killed in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas.

President and Mrs. Obama will attend the ceremony at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

33 year-old Kevin Sanders was one of ten first responders who died in that blast.

He graduated from Marist High School in Chicago in 1997.

Texas Memorial

He was also a former resident of Palos Hills and Plainfield.

He served under Plainfield’s emergency management agency for about five years, where he assisted police with events and traffic control. He moved to Texas several years ago, and he later became a volunteer for the Bruceville-Eddy Fire Department.

He was in the middle of an an EMT class at the time of the blasts, and quickly rushed to the scene.

His remains will be brought back to the Chicago area, and arrangements are now underway for an honor transport. He leaves behind a wife and an infant son.

Workers who have been sifting through debris at the scene around-the-clock will be relieved in order to attend Thursday’s services.

WGN News Writer C. Hayes published this report.

The body of a firefighter who was killed in last week’s plant explosion in West, Texas will be returned to the Chicago area with honors.

Former Plainfield resident Kevin W. Sanders was among the first responders who lost their lives.

Sanders and his EMT class arrived on the scene to help evacuate residents from the fire.

He was 33 years old.

District officials say he will receive the appropriate honors awarded to a fallen firefighter

Twelve bodies have been recovered in the aftermath of this week’s fiery explosion in West, Texas, authorities said Friday, but 60 people reportedly remain unaccounted for.

Authorities are trying to determine whether some of those 60 are in hospitals or in other people’s homes, making an exact casualty count difficult to establish, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Friday.

Sgt. Jason Reyes said Friday that 200 people have been injured and 50 homes have been destroyed.

“This is still being treated as a crime scene,” Reyes said.

Many questions remain about Wednesday’s fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant, which badly damaged a five-block area.

What caused the blast, so deafening its ground motion registered as an earthquake?

How many people died and how many were pulled from the charred rubble alive?

Was it the result of criminal activity?

Despite the flurry of questions, one thing is certain. The effect on the small town of West — population 2,800 — is massive.

The fertilizer plant explosion Wednesday night leveled buildings, ripped up walls and threw people on the ground blocks away. About half the town was evacuated, including a nursing home with 133 residents.

Officials are treading cautiously on providing specific numbers on victims, but fire officials confirmed some deaths among their crew.

Five West firefighters, one Dallas firefighter and four emergency responders were killed, the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas said in a statement Thursday.

So far 150 buildings have been searched and cleared, with 25 more homes left to search and clear, CNN’s Martin Savidge reported. The structures are weakened, and need to be shored up before they can be searched.

Three firetrucks and one EMS truck were also destroyed.

The blast stunned residents and left behind a trail of charred devastation in the small town.

“There’s no way I would have ever dreamed that this would have happened,” paramedic Bryce Reed told CNN’s “AC360°.”

“I mean, it’s profound and it’s dire, and it hurts like hell,” he said. “But, you know, the main thing we wanted to convey is that … please keep the prayers coming. Please keep the thoughts coming.”

When he responded to the scene, it left him speechless, Reed said.

“I can tell you there’s absolutely no words that I possess that can convey adequately what I saw,” he said. “It went from my hometown and my reality and my existence to a war zone in an instant, and I haven’t even had time to process that yet.”

He lost some friends, all volunteer emergency workers, just like him.

“People who didn’t have to go to that blast, went to that blast,” he said. “People who could have stayed at home, they didn’t have to go. … They were all volunteers.”

Authorities are still scouring the area for survivors — and answers.

“We still are holding out some hope,” Mayor Tommy Muska said. He said the number of casualties may rise.

The area around the site of remains “very volatile” because of the presence of ammonium nitrate, according to Matt Cawthon, chief deputy sheriff of McLennan County. Ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer composed of ammonia and nitrogen, is also a component of explosives widely used in mining.

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air. A deafening boom echoed for miles.

It registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

Brad Smith felt his house shake. It’s 50 miles away from the plant.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’ “

Local authorities are working with federal officials, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to determine the cause of the deadly explosion.

Though there are no indications of criminal activity, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said, it has not been ruled out yet.

It’s unclear whether the plant had safety problems. But in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company that ran the fertilizer plant $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.

Seven years ago, the company had a complaint against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and about 20 miles north of Waco.

The blast came as the nation remains on edge following the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday that killed three and left about 180 injured.

It also coincided almost exactly with the 20th anniversary of a fire in Waco that ended a federal agents’ siege against members of the Branch Davidian sect. More than 80 sect members and some federal agents died.

That anniversary is Friday.
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The massive, deadly blast at a fertilizer plant Wednesday night forced the evacuation of about half the town of about 2,800 people and left officials asking key questions: Was it a crime or an accident? How could it have happened?

“Nothing at this point indicates we have had criminal activity, but we are not ruling that out,” said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the nearby Waco Police Department.

A more immediate question is how high the death toll will rise.

It could be between five and 15, Swanton said. Dr. George Smith, the city’s emergency management system director, said it could spike to 60 or 70.

“We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead,” Smith said.

“There are a lot of people that will not be here tomorrow,” Mayor Tommy Muska warned late Wednesday.

The Texas National Guard has sent 21 troops from a civil support team to monitor air quality near the blast, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The White House said it is monitoring the situation through FEMA, which is in touch with state and local authorities. Federal authorities stand ready to help, a FEMA official said.

More than 160 people were injured when the explosion shook homes as far as 50 miles away. It measured as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey.

“It’s overwhleming to us,” Smith told CNN affiliate KCEN, with blood spattered all over his face from injuries he suffered. The town has only three ambulances, he said.

Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area suffered damage, officials said.

The explosion rocked the West Fertilizer Co. at about 7:50 p.m. (8:50 p.m. ET).

Patients were rushed to several hospitals. Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center reported five patients in intensive care — two in critical condition, three in serious condition. At least 28 patients will be admitted, said hospital chief Glenn Robinson.

About half the community was evacuated, Muska said.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” he said of the blast. “Big old mushroom cloud.”

“(It’s) massive — just like Iraq. Just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department.

The blast stripped a nearby apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows. “It was just a skeleton standing up,” Wilson said.

A nursing home, with 133 residents, was quickly evacuated. A middle school also is located near the plant.

Weather could hamper efforts

A storm system heading into the area could worsen the situation.

“Winds will be gusting up to 35 miles per hour through the afternoon,” said CNN Meteorologist Jennifer Delgado. “This can move the direction of the fire” — a big concern for firefighters working to contain the blaze, she said.

Lightening and hail could damage those efforts as well — and endanger people in the area who’ve been left homeless.

Overnight lows will be just above freezing, Delgado said. Those without homes will need shelter.

West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town’s chamber of commerce touts it as “the Czech point of central Texas.”

Czech immigrants arrived in the town in the 1880s, and the community still maintains strong ties to their central European roots, with businesses named “Little Czech Bakery” and “The Czech Inn.”

‘The roof came in on me’

The blast sent a massive fireball into the sky. Flames leaped over the roof of a structure and a large plume of smoke rose high into the air.

“The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came,” said George Smith, the city EMS director.

“It, like, picked you up,” a woman told CNN affiliate WFAA. “It just took your breath away. And then it dropped you and it exploded everything around you… It was like a suction and then it just blew it all out. You could feel everything. You could feel it on your skin, your hair was being blown. It was crazy.”

She managed to cover one of her children, she said, and “grabbed my little one and dove through a door. It was chaos. All my windows blew out, my doors off the hinges. All I had were my keys in my hand and I just threw the dog, everybody in the car and we took off.”

Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and felt his house shake.

“We didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come though. My wife and I looked up and wondered, ‘Did it get here six hours early?’”

Five hours after the blast, carloads of the wounded continued to stream into hospitals.

While some of the injuries are minor, others were “quite serious,” said Robinson of Hillcrest Hospital in Waco.

Many suffered from “blast injuries, orthopedic injuries (and) a lot of lacerations,” he said.

Risk remains

For the town, the danger may not be over.

Even though officials have turned off all the gas, they worry another tank at the facility might explode.

“What we are hearing is that there is one fertilizer tank that is still intact at the plant, and there are evacuations in place to make sure everyone gets away from the area safely in case of another explosion,” said Ben Stratmann, a spokesman for Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell.

If the winds shift, the other half of the town will have to be evacuated as well.

The big concern: anhydrous ammonia, a pungent gas with suffocating fumes that is used as a fertilizer.

When exposed to people, the gas can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body.

Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death.

The West Fertilizer Co. said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News reported.

The scene

Early Thursday morning, state troopers in gas masks manned roadblocks, waving away cars coming off the highway.

The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.

Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week, and urged everyone to stay away from school property.

So many firefighters and medics descended on the town to help its all-volunteer force that the public safety department pleaded that no more assistance was needed.

“The firefighters and EMS people are coming from hundreds of miles away to help us,” Wilson said. “Right now, we are overflowing with help. “

Worst-case scenario

In 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant’s report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that dire: there would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

But what happened Wednesday night was much worse.

Tommy Alford, who works in a convenience store about three miles from the plant, said several volunteer firefighters were at the store when they spotted smoke.

Alford said the firefighters headed toward the scene and then between five and 10 minutes later, he heard a huge explosion.

“It was massive; it was intense,” Alford said.

‘Not the end of the world’

Cheryl Marak, who sits on West’s city council, said the blast’s impact knocked her to the ground.

“It demolished both the houses there, mine and my mom’s and it killed my dog,” she said.

Other residents had similar stories.

“It was like a bomb went off,” said Barry Murry, who lives about a mile from the plant. “There were emergency vehicles everywhere. It has been overwhelming.”

As they waited for daybreak, they sought comfort in each other and in Mayor Muska’s words.

“This is not the end of the world,” he said. “This is a big ol’ cut that we got across our hearts right now.”

“But,” he added, “we are strong. We will rebuild.”

CNN’s Chandler Friedman, Carma Hassan, Ed Payne, Greg Botelho, Amanda Watts, Jake Carpenter, Tina Burnside, Dave Alsup, Tanika Gray, Darrell Calhoun, Ryan Rios, Alta Spells, Travis Sattiewhite and Christabelle Fombu contributed to this report.

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