A RESCUE operation in the Texas farming town shattered by a fertiliser plant explosion was beginning to wind down last night, with 12 confirmed fatalities and fears of dozens more.
Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) in the small town of West, about 80 miles south of
Dallas, said teams were still sifting through rubble and going house to house, with 150 damaged or destroyed buildings cleared and two dozen waiting.
The change in description from a search-and-rescue effort to one of search and recovery suggested that the authorities believe they are unlikely to find more survivors.
According to Sgt Jason Reyes, spokesman for the Texas DPS, some 200 people were injured in Wednesday night’s blast when ammonia-based chemicals at the West Fertiliser Company exploded, sending a fireball 300ft into the air and leaving a black cloud and a huge crater where the plant once stood.
He said last night that search teams pulled two more bodies from the rubble, bringing the official death toll to 14. An unknown number are still unaccounted for. “We know these bodies were in the area of the explosion,” he added.
“We continue with the recovery effort. We are still treating this as a crime scene. We will go in there and make sure we conduct a thorough investigation.”
He added that 50 homes were destroyed by the blast, plus three fire engines and an ambulance.
Chris Barron, executive director of the Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, said 11 of the victims were emergency medical personnel, including five of West’s 33 volunteer firefighters, killed in the explosion about 25 minutes after they arrived to tackle a fire at the plant.
Local media named Jerry Chapman, 26, as one of them, while in Dallas, mayor Mike Rawlings paid tribute to Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old father of three and a captain in the city’s fire department, who was not on duty in West but who was killed after he went to assist the volunteers.
The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, told reporters on Thursday that “around 35 people” were dead, based on the fact that every other resident and first responder had been accounted for.
Sgt Reyes said he was unable to confirm how many more bodies were still to be recovered.
Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), meanwhile, assisted by the US Chemical Safety Board, have begun their inquiry into the cause of the blast.
The inquiry could take six months, an ATF spokeswoman said, and investigators will focus on which chemicals were stored at the plant.
The West Fertiliser Company was licensed for 54,000lbs of anhydrous ammonia, a liquid nitrogen agricultural fertiliser stored in reinforced steel tanks and which releases a mostly harmless gas when exposed to air.
The explosion was first thought to have been caused by the ignition of the anhydrous ammonia, but it was revealed on Thursday through Texas state records that the plant also possessed 245 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a much more volatile, dry solid, at the end of 2012.
Records also suggested that the plant operated without a licence between 2004 and 2006, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a $2,300 (£1,500) fine for deficiencies in risk management.