WEST, Texas (KXAN/AP) - Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday said he is seeking a federal disaster declaration for West, Texas in the wake of the deadly explosion at the fertilizer plant.
Speaking from the DPS command post in North Austin, the governor said he has already spoken with President Obama about his request and thanked him for his attention to the disaster in the town north of Waco.
"Last night was truly a nightmare scenario," Perry told reporters.
Late Thursday afternoon, the city of Dallas reported that one of those killed was Fire Capt. Kenny Harris, 52. The West resident was not on duty, but rushed to help when he was killed, the city said.
In West, meanwhile, crews in the neighborhoods surrounding the deadly explosion at the 51-year-old fertilizer plant still expect to find survivors, an official said Thursday.
They "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swonton, who was acting as the official spokesman for the first responders in the area north of Waco.
The death toll from the explosion could be as high as 15 and two of those killed were paramedics, Swonton said.
He told reporters he that officials did not know how many people have been rescued or how many are still missing. Crews were conducting search-and-rescue operations throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the plant. He also said the blast appears to be an industrial accident.
Meanwhile the area around the plant was labeled a crime scene. More than 160 were hurt in the blast that was felt as far away as Dallas. Several firefighters were among the first on the scene of the explosion were among the missing, a law enforcement official said.
One firefighter who had been missing was located in an area hospital with serious injuries, Swonton said.
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials are investigating the explosion at the plant, while the McLennan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the deaths from the Wednesday night explosion.
"What that means to us is: Until we know that it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene," said Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton during a press conference around 4:40 a.m. "I have heard no indications that this is anything other than an accidental fire."
Swanton said they were still unsure of the number of deaths so far but offered a rough estimate of anywhere between five and 15 people.
There have already been more than 160 people treated at hospitals, 19 of whom are in serious condition. Of those 98 people treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, five in the intensive care unit.
"Some needed fertilizer decontamination when they first came in," said Swanton.
In addition, there were up to to five firefighters missing and an additional law enforcement official who was with those firefighters trying to put out the blaze at the plant when the explosion happened.
Mayor Tommy Muska said Thursday the nursing home near the plant that was in the process of being evacuated has been cleared.
Meanwhile, about 20 members of the Texas National Guard were dispatched to the area to act as first respondents, a spokeswoman said. The unit that was dispatched typically has mobile labs and can perform air monitoring while also assessing chemical and biological hazards at disasters, she said.
The blast sent flames shooting high into the night sky -- leaving the factory a smoldering ruin, causing major damage to nearby buildings and injuring several others.
The explosion happened just before 8 p.m. Wednesday and registered a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But mid-morning, the fire at the plant was smoldering but under control. Small fires in neighborhoods were also under control, officials said.
Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients -- some in wheelchairs.
"We did get there and got that taken care of," said Muska.
"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't going to be here tomorrow," said Muska "We're going to search for everybody. We're going to make sure everybody's accounted for. That's the most important thing right now."
Muska, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the town's Department went to the plant to fight a fire about 6:30 p.m., and the blast that followed knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his home nearby.
The mayor said some firefighters who were battling the blaze when the blast happened aren't accounted for. Muska said there were five or six volunteer firefighters on scene when the explosion happened.
Meanwhile, authorities were working through the night to evacuate several nearby neighbors.
Pat Wright, a lifelong resident, was reeling from the magnitude of the destruction of his hometown.
"I know that I've lost at least four friends in the blast," Wright told KXAN by phone Thursday morning. "That's kind of devastating. A lot of them had children the same age as mine. I hope the people are OK. But it's sad that they also had horses and animals and that tears people up too. See them not have a chance and everything being wiped out."
Gov. Rick Perry was scheduled to brief reporters later in the morning at the DPS command center in Austin.
"We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident," Perry said in a statement. "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."
Department of Public Safety troopers were using their squad cars to transport those injured by the blast and fire at the plant, a spokeswoman for the department's Waco office said. She said six helicopters were also dispatched to help out.
Dozens of emergency vehicles amassed at the scene and hours after the blast, fires were still smoldering in the ruins of the plant and in several surrounding buildings.
West City Councilman Al Vanek said first-responders were treating victims at about half a dozen sites, and he saw several injured residents from the nursing home being treated at the community center.
"Tomorrow is going to be a very sad day," Vanek said.
The high school football field, which was being used as a staging area, was later evacuated due to a concern of another explosion. A triage center was then set up at the town's community center.
Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received more than 100 injured people for treatment, including at least 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts.
McLennan County first responders were calling for all hands on deck. Ellis County was sending the South County Strike Team and several volunteer fire departments to the town of West to help out.
Debby Marak told The Associated Press that when she finished teaching her religion class Wednesday night, she noticed a lot of smoke coming from 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 out of her car two boys ran toward her screaming that the authorities told them to leave because the plant was going to explode. She said she drove about a block before the blast happened.
"It was like being in a tornado," the 58-year-old said by phone. "Stuff was flying everywhere. It blew out my windshield."
"It was like the whole earth shook."
She 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 cause of the explosion is still under investigation.
KXAS, the NBC affiliate in Dallas, said people as far north as south Arlington felt the explosion.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas are being sent to the site.
Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster says her group is working with emergency management officials in the town of West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She says teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.
Family looking for information on patients being taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center can call 254-202-1100.
All West ISD campuses will be closed Thursday and Friday.
This report contains material from The Associated Press and media outlets in Waco and Dallas-Fort Worth. KXAN reporters David Scott and Chris Sadeghi also contributed to this report.
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