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Massive Explosion At Fertilizer Plant In Town Of West, Texas

Aired April 18, 2013 - 01:00   ET


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: This is PIERS MORGAN LIVE. It's 1:00 am on the East Coast.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

MORGAN: Good evening. This is PIERS MORGAN LIVE. It's 1:00 am on the East Coast, midnight in Texas. And we have breaking news tonight, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small Texas town of West, about 20 miles from Waco, that left at least two people dead, leveled several homes and prompted a wide-scale evacuation in the community of 2,500 people; 10-15, maybe a lot more buildings have been totally demolished and probably 50 homes heavily damaged.

This is a stunning video from KWKT (sic) of the moment of the explosion.


MORGAN (voice-over): As we said, at least -- we believe three people are dead. And there are evacuations underway right now. Officials fear the number of deaths will probably soar more than 30 departments over a two-county area are participating in the hazmat and firefighting effort.

And joining me again now is Brett Esrock. He's the CEO of the Providence Health Center.

Mr. Esrock, it clearly is a major disaster.

When did you first hear about this? And how quickly were you receiving patients?

BRETT ESROCK, PRESIDENT AND CEO, PROVIDENCE HEALTH CENTER, WACO: Actually, we heard about this shortly after 8:00 pm and we actually had enough time, being about 25 miles from the incident itself, to mobilize our doctors, our nurses, respiratory therapists, all the staff here at the hospital and get prepared for the -- this disaster.

MORGAN: And the nature of the injuries, we're hearing that a lot of people have minor injuries, cuts and bruises and so on; some have severe burns. Many are critical.

Of those that have gone to where you are, what is the nature of the injuries?

ESROCK: Very similar injuries. We've had one critical patient here. Most of our patients are minor injuries, just like you've described, Piers. The patients have cuts and abrasions, a few with broken bones, several of them in respiratory distress from chemical inhalations.

So treating them for those injuries, a few burns, but mostly minor to moderate at this point. And unsure of the extent of the injuries of the 20-25 that are on the way right now.

MORGAN: And of those that are on the way, are you expecting more after that? Is this an ongoing situation?

ESROCK: It's very unclear at this point. We are going to be prepared throughout the night to take on more casualties. But we're unclear as to the extent of any additional people that will be coming to our organization.

MORGAN: There was a field triage station set up at a football field near the plant. But they had to move away from that because of the fears of this second explosion, possibly, at a second fertilizer tank.

ESROCK: And that was the information --


MORGAN: Brett, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to leave you briefly. We're going straight to a press conference which is in West, Texas.

ESROCK: You bet.


D.L. WILSON, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: We've got the gas companies turning all the gas off to the areas that was where the explosion happened. We do not need any more help. If you can get that out right now, the firefighters and EMS people are coming from hundreds of miles away to help us.

But right now, we are overflowing with help and we do not need any more help as far as that goes.

Tomorrow morning, the mayor is going to speak again. Right now, we have a tremendous amount of injuries, probably over a hundred injuries at this time. At this time, we do have confirmed fatalities. The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute.

We're in there, searching the area right now and making sure it's safe for any of the other people that are around there and the firefighters are trying to be safe and go back in. There's just a lot of the wind blowing, changing area, the anhydrous is still smoking and there's little, small flames and they don't want to get the firefighters hurt or injured inside the blast area.

I can tell you, I was there. I walked through the blast area. I searched some houses earlier tonight, massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, same kind of anhydrous that exploded. So you can imagine what kind of damage we're looking at there.

I know there was at least 50-75 houses damaged. There's an apartment complex that has about 50 units in it that was completely just skeleton standing up. There's a nursing home there that had 133 people in the nursing home. We've got them evacuated. I don't know what their injuries are there right now. But all injuries have been removed from the scene and taken to local hospitals in the Waco area.

We had numerous agencies helping us all the way from the Dallas- Ft. Worth area, McLennan County, Limestone, Hill, Bosque and all the surrounding areas. So we've had a great turn out to come out to help us, to get through this tragedy that we've had in this small community.

I wish I could give you more information. All the injured right now have been taken care of. We're going to go back in and do another house-by-house search and see if anybody else, the victims, are in the houses. That's going to be going on all night.

So we have a command post set up for the law enforcement and we have a command post set up for the emergency units also. And we still have a triage center set up at the community center right over here across the interstate from us.

QUESTION: What's the status of the plant?

WILSON: It's still smoldering. Right now, they did not give us any update on it. But it was smoldering still, and there still is active, you know, other ingredients there on the facility. So we don't want that to explode again.

So -- but right now, we cannot get firefighters in there. We're not going to -- we're worried about people right now, not property. We want people to be safe. That's our main goal right now, is getting the people safe and getting them out of there. So...

QUESTION: Do you have a rough number of how many lives might have been lost?

WILSON: I do not know right now. It's going to be a number, you know. I can't give you a number right now, but there's going to be a number out there. Hopefully at 6:00 am we'll know that. So...

QUESTION: Early estimates are 50 to 60, 70 maybe.

WILSON: I cannot confirm or deny that. I mean, that's -- I just -- I wish I could tell you something, but I do not have that number.

QUESTION: Is this fire under control? (Inaudible) situation (inaudible)?

WILSON: The firefighters are not fighting the fire right now. So it's still smoldering a little bit. There's not any large flames, but they're in the area, but they cannot get close to it due to the toxic fumes that are coming off of it right now.

QUESTION: Is there a danger of fumes outside the plant?

WILSON: There is. They've cleared the area. I think it was about a eight- to 10-block area they've cleared. And they've moved people even back further. So half of that town over there is totally, totally evacuated.

What we're worried about now is when the north -- we're supposed to have a norther come through tonight. And when that north wind changes, we might even have to evacuate the other side of town. So...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guys, I'm going to stop you there. I ask no comments at this point. Let us get some more information. Once we get that, we'll come back out and we'll give you what we can.

I know that you got a million questions but we got -


MORGAN (voice-over): (Inaudible) press conference there, just incredible, describing complete destruction, saying there are fatalities, not giving out a specific number. The fire is under control, but smoldering. A 50-apartment complex building was decimated; 130 people evacuated from a nearby nursing home and at least 50-60 homes may have been, well, devastated.

Brad Smith lived 50 miles away and his house shook from the force of the blast. And he joins me now.

Mr. Smith, quite extraordinary that you should be so far away, but felt the aftershock of this explosion?

BRAD SMITH, WAXAHACHIE, TEXAS, RESIDENT: Yes, we didn't know exactly what it was. There was a forecast of a line thunderstorms coming through tonight. And my wife and I looked up and thought, did they get six hours, eight hours early? But it didn't quite sound like thunder. But it did, it shook the house. It made the windows rattle. It got our attention.

MORGAN: And whereabouts are you in Texas?

SMITH: I'm in Waxahachie. That's just about 50 miles north of West.

MORGAN: And we hear that the winds had been very strong all night. And this has been one of the problems facing the firefighters. In fact, they're so strong at the moment, that they're fearing if the north wind, I think, changes later in the way they think it's going to, they may not even going to get back in to deal with the fire.

Does it feel very windy to you? Even where you are?

SMITH: Yes, it's still -- the winds are blowing pretty good out there. And that was kind of a concern to us, also. We're north of West and with the southerly winds and now we're hearing that the fumes may be toxic. So we're a little concerned about that up here.

MORGAN: Well, that must be a concern to anybody, I would have thought, in any kind of vicinity to West, because we know that these ammonia fumes that have come as a result of the fertilizer plant exploding, they are poisonous. And with these very, very strong winds coming in, I would assume that they can travel quite some distance.

SMITH: That would be my assumption, yes.

MORGAN: It's an awful thing to have happened to a small town in Texas.

Do you know West yourself?

SMITH: I've been through West several times. I have some friends who have family there. And they're concerned about their family. And it is. It's a wonderful little town. And I'm -- it's just devastating that this has happened. And I can't believe we actually felt it 50 miles away.

MORGAN: Absolutely extraordinary. Then we heard D.L. Wilson there, who's the public safety officer. He was talking about it, the explosion, being just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and talking about a death toll that -- I mean, he couldn't put a number on it, but we're hearing it all the time, that it's likely to be very, very significant, indeed.

SMITH: Yes. There are some very bad reports on some of the stations right now. I'm hoping that those are wrong.

MORGAN: It's an awful situation.

Thank you very much, indeed, for joining me.

SMITH: Well, thank you, sir.

MORGAN: I want to go back to Brad Esrock. He's the CEO of Providence Health Center.

Mr. Esrock, you can hear there that somebody 50 miles away feeling the aftershock of this explosion. Does that surprise you?

ESROCK: Yes, it's surprising to hear that myself.

MORGAN: And in terms of the press conference there with Mr. Wilson from the Department of Public Safety, clearly fearing that there's going be a very significant death toll here, I'm talking about very large numbers of injuries, I would imagine that you guys could be busy throughout the night at this rate?

ESROCK: Yes, it appears that we're going to be very busy throughout the night. In fact, we just had, a little bit to our surprise, a bus show up with about 20 patients on the bus that we're unloading as we speak and triaging them right at this moment. So unsure of the condition of all those patients that just arrived. So it's -- it appears to be a very busy night here at Providence Health Center.

MORGAN: Well, I won't keep you any longer. Thank you so much for sparing so much time to talk to us and bring us up to date on what's happening where you are. And best of luck tonight in dealing with this very serious situation.

ESROCK: Thank you very much.

MORGAN: That was Brett Esrock, the CEO of Providence Health Center in Waco, about 20-odd miles away from West in Texas, where there's been this devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant. Scores of people injured and we believe and fear also killed. We'll be back after this break with more updates.



MORGAN: PIERS MORGAN LIVE, we want to bring you up to speed on tonight's breaking news out of Texas. At least 10-15 buildings, maybe many more, have been totally demolished; another 50 homes heavily damaged after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, about 20 miles from Waco.

Three confirmed dead at the moment. Many, many more injured, maybe as many as 200. And this stunning video from KWKT (sic) at the moment of the explosion.

Evacuations are under way right now with fear of a potential second explosion from a second plant there. Clearly, a very serious situation and concerns from local enforcers there, enforcement officers, the death toll could rise significantly.

More than 30 departments from a two-county area are assisting in the hazmat and firefighting effort. I'm back now on the phone with Glenn Robinson. He's the CEO of Hillcrest Hospital in Waco.

Mr. Robinson, I know that you've been receiving more people since we last spoke. How many patients have you been treating now?

GLENN ROBINSON, CEO, HILLCREST HOSPITAL: Our triage team here has just informed me that we have now seen slightly more than a hundred patients this evening.

If there's any good news to be found in that, it's that the majority of those are people with more minor injuries and what we find, folks who are being able to ambulate under their own power but may have major lacerations and those kinds of things which we've been able to help them with.

Currently, we're anticipating at this hour probably at least 16, the number could change, but we're probably looking at least 16 of those folks that we know are going to be staying with us overnight. Some have already been treated and released. Others will be treated before daybreak and be able to be released.

Our team here, thanks to the number of physicians and nurses and many others that came in this evening in their off-duty hours, we have been able to process patients as they have come through this evening in a very timely way. I could not be more proud of our team. It's been phenomenal to watch the system work.

We're part of Scott & White Health Care and Scott & White Memorial in Temple has been our backup. They're a level one trauma center. They're a trauma center, just like we are. And they have taken a number of patients.

We've also been able to send a couple of pediatric patients that needed a higher level of pediatric subspecialty care, we've been able to get those directly to Scott & White McLain (ph) Children's Hospital. And the triage team on the ground, up at West, what a phenomenal job they've done. They were able to get patients early on that received some burns.

Those were sent directly to Parkland Hospital up in Dallas. That's our regional burn center. And so I've been told several burn patients were sent there. Providence Hospital here in Waco have helped -- that team has been a tremendous help. And we -- the last number I've heard, they've treated more than 20 patients.

MORGAN: And, finally, Mr. Robinson, it's the real fear here. We had the press conference earlier, that perhaps there may be many people trapped in these homes that are being totaled. They talked an apartment block of 50 units that are being completely razed to the ground, 50-75 homes badly damaged, a nursing home with 133 people in it evacuated with many injured.

Is the real concern that there may be many either trapped, severely injured or possibly fatally injured lying in the rubble there?

ROBINSON: Well that's certainly additional information for us. As you know, we're focusing mainly on just what we anticipate taking care of. And we have been alerted from the team on the ground that we will continue to see other patients throughout the evening.

We are being told in an optimistic way that most of those that we will be seeing hopefully are more minor injuries and those kinds of things. But if the situation that you described, perhaps that can certainly we can see other serious injuries coming to us here at the trauma center throughout the evening.

I would want to pass along a number. There may be viewers that are watching that have loved ones here and they may be concerned, trying to get information. We have set up a hotline here at Hillcrest and Scott & White. The number which they can call is 254-202-1100. That's 254-202-1100.

We have staff members that are manning those phones. We will try to get information confirmed whether we have their loved ones here and be able to provide relatives, next of kin, about their loved ones' (inaudible) conditions and give them updates (inaudible).

MORGAN: Mr. Robinson, thank you very much for joining me. I know you've got a hugely busy night ahead of you. And I wish you and all your staff continued good luck in dealing with what is a very serious and traumatic situation.

ROBINSON: Well, thank you very much. And we appreciate all that y'all are doing to get the word out this evening as well.

MORGAN: Thank you.

And just to remind everybody, the hotline is 254-202-1100 if you need to have information about anyone that may have been involved in this incident.

And now we go to Ben Ferguson, who's on the line, a regular contributor to the show, who's in Dallas.

But, Ben, I understand you've got some information for me about what may be happening down in West.

BEN FERGUSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right now, one of the biggest issues is there's so many people in that area, Piers, that don't have power. And so there's -- we've just heard from the state troopers that there's probably going to be an expanded evacuation of the blast site due to bad weather and high winds coming in that area.

And the problem is there's so many people outside right now their homes, because they have no connection with the outside world because of the lack of power that is there. And the devastation, Piers, that I've seen in the pictures from people that are in the area, it's not so much about the fires as it was the blunt trauma of the force of the explosion.

You look at this apartment building that was hit, for example. There was obviously a lot of people inside that building at the time of this blast. And it was turned to virtually rubble without there being a single spark.

The cars that we've seen and so many people that have been -- were injured in their vehicles driving around that area, maybe not even getting to see the flames from the fertilizer plant. But when the explosion happened, all of their windows were blown out of their car.

And so the biggest issue is now what we're hearing is from -- again, from the law enforcement locally there is they have enough help. The issue now is getting people away from this blast site and getting people informed because everyone on the outside looking in, we see the video, we're hearing about the weather.

The people at ground zero of this blast don't have that luxury right now. And we've also just been told that they are about to go back, door-to-door, looking for people inside this blast zone because they've not, unfortunately, been able to do, as they call it, a thorough enough job. This is from law enforcement. They want to go back in there, but they're also concerned about a possible second explosion. They're concerned about the changing winds and the toxic air that can be around this area from these fertilizers.

And so you had a lot of first responders on the ground. I talked earlier with one volunteer fireman in this small town, it's all volunteer firemen. This is, you know, businessmen and teachers and fathers and even the mayor is a volunteer firefighter. They responded to this.

And now they're saying, just there in West, that at least firemen who were the first responders, volunteers, are unaccounted for. And unfortunately, that number is continuing to rise. And the hospitals have done an amazing job with all of the people coming in.

But we are seeing how bad these injuries are as, there have been now, apparently, we're flying in people into Dallas, into the main trauma center here, the same hospital where JFK was taken when he was shot in Dallas. And that is 90 miles away from this blast site. And that is what people are dealing with, is this, intense, intense drama.

MORGAN: Well, just to give you an idea, Ben, we're just getting word now actually that the U.S. Geological Survey registered a 2.1 magnitude seismic event on the Richter scale at 8:50 pm Eastern. The event registered on several nearby stations.

Even though the explosion was above ground and the nearest station in Lake Whitney, Texas, was approximately 25 miles away. So that gives you some idea of the sheer ferocity of this explosion.

FERGUSON: Absolutely. And not only just that, but the other small towns around it that felt this, places for example like Canton (ph), Texas, where there was a lot of people that started calling apparently local authorities saying, did we just have an earthquake? They're 40-plus miles away from this blast site.

And so if you look at the video, you can just come out from people that had the reporting. You can see that shock wave going out.

And they asked for all of the people that were filming from these helicopters, probably about 45 people now had to leave that area because they were afraid if there was a second explosion, that would make for unstable air and that those helicopters would not only not be safe, but could put other people's lives in danger on the ground as well.

And so they've had this virtual no-fly zone that's been put around this area.

We also know that apparently two, and what's being referred to these as two ambulance buses, where they can treat up to 20 people, have been called in from major cities. They're on their way there. Apparently, one has just arrived, so that they can take 20 patients at one time, and then, at the same time, transport them to whichever hospital they need to go to. On top of this nursing home that was so close, they took a huge, blunt hit from this explosion with more than a hundred elderly people there.


MORGAN: Yes, we believe -- we believe, Ben, though, just on the -- there were over 133 people evacuated from the nursing home. There were 50 units in the apartment block, all of which have been totaled. Another 50-75 homes very badly damaged.

Clearly, I think the full scale of this will emerge over the next few hours. But I think a lot more serious than even it appears right now.

Ben Ferguson, thank you very much for joining me.

FERGUSON: Absolutely.

MORGAN: Back with me on the phone now is Chris Sedaghi. He's a reporter for KXAN.

Chris, we spoke earlier. Since then, clearly, the situation is worsening. We've got a very grim update there from the public health officials, basically implying that they need to go back in there and just try and work out how bad this is.

CHRIS SEDAGHI, KXAN REPORTER: Yes, I'm getting emails and also updates from some of the crews that we have on the scene. And it sounds like that the press, the media, was taken to an auction barn away from the triage center because they are working on shutting down three (inaudible), opening up the evacuation route to get people out of there.

I know that the EPA is also sending out -- they've got it on their monitor about the toxic fumes, they're monitoring the situation. I'm not sure what they've reported yet, as far as how dangerous it is to be breathing in the West area right now. But they certainly are monitoring the situation and they are trying to get as many people out of there as they can right now, certainly what it sounds like.

MORGAN: Yes, they made it clear that their priority is people, not property, the real worry being this north wind that's coming in later, which may stop them being able to work on the fire, which could, of course, increase the chances of a second explosion there.

But we'll just have to wait and see how that all plays out. The concern right now is to get these people out of there and to find those who have been badly hurt, who may be lying in the rubble. Thank you very much indeed for joining me again.

SEDECHI: Thank you.

MORGAN: And that's where we'll leave you tonight. It's been a devastating incident in Texas. The coverage will continue on CNN International. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)