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Fertilizer Plant in Texas Exploded

Aired April 18, 2013 - 03:00   ET


D. L. WILSON, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: We do have confirmed fatalities. The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We are in there searching the area right now and making sure that it any of the other people around there. And the firefighters are trying to be safe and go back in. This is a lot of wind blowing, change in area and hard is still smoking and there's a 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 Murray building in Oklahoma City. Same kind of hardest exploded. So you can imagine what kind of damage we're looking at there.

I know there was at least 75 to -- 50 to 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 in the area with 133 people in the nursing home. We have got them evacuated. I don't know what their injuries there are right now. But all injuries have been removed from the scene and taken to the hospital.

We have numerous injuries helping us from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, McLennan County, Limestone, Geobasky (ph) and all the surrounding areas. So, we have had a great turnout to come out to help us get through this tragedy we have had in this small community.

I wish I could give you more information. All the injured right now have been taken care of. We are going to go back in and do another house-by-house search and see if anybody else is in the houses. That is going to be going on all night. So we have a command post set up for the law enforcement and command post set up for the emergency units also and we have a triage center set up at the community center right over her across interstate premise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: What's the status of the plant right now?

WILSON: It is still smolders. Right now, they did not give us any update on it, but it was smolder 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. So, we are not going to -- we are worried about people right now, not property. We want people to be safe. That's our main goal is getting the people safe and out of there. JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: As you heard, emergency officials are saying between 60 and 80 homes at (INAUDIBLE) are being destroyed. A volunteer firefighter tweeted this picture of that apartment building, and there are reports that a school and nursing home have been badly damaged.

Rescue workers have been unable to get anywhere close to the plant because the fire is still burning, still releasing toxic chemicals into the air. There are fears that a second large fertilizer tank may explode.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR Now, if you need more information about the victims of this fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, the Hillcrest hospital has set up an information hotline to call. Again, I ask you grab your pen if you need to get this number down. We will put it up there for a little while and I will read it out twice.

It is 254-202-1100. That number again, 254-202-1100.

Now, we want to show you an image that really demonstrates the level of destruction near the blast site. It is a photo posted on twitter by volunteer firefighter. We have shown to you a couple of times. But, there it is again for those viewers who may have just joined us.

That is the apartment building near the fertilizer plant. You have heard officials describe the damage as something out of a war zone, well, there it is. This image certainly fits that description, total destruction of that apartment block.

I want to show you also exactly where this explosion took place. The west fertilizer plant is in the small town of west, Texas. It is only 18 miles north of Waco. That is about 28 kilometers. And west, Texas is home to about 2,800 people. So this, we are talking about a small town here.

VAUSE: OK. Let's go to D. L. Wilson on the Texas highway patrol. He is on the phone. We heard from him a little earlier in the broadcast. He is going us now on the line.

Mr. Wilson, thank you for being with us. So, can you bring us the very latest from the scene there? What are you doing right now? What is the most pressing concern?

WILSON (via phone): Well, we are still in there--

VAUSE: Why didn't you get close to the fire right now? What is the main concern?

WILSON: Well, there's other chemicals and fertilizer still in the facility there, and we do not want to injure or harm any firefighters, EMS people that need to go to that area to extinguish that. There's experts on the scene that are working diligently to see if they can work through that. We're going to have a cold front come through here about 6:00, 7:00 in the morning and the wind is going to shift. So we're monitoring that. They have things that they're looking at for that, if we need to evacuate any more residents.

VAUSE: So, what's the plan now with the fire? Is it just basically trying to burn itself out, is that where this stands right now?

WILSON: I'm not for sure. Like I said, I'm not a trained firefighters being out there. They are taking care of business the way they need to take care of it. But it's just too dangerous right now what I was explained. (INAUDIBLE). The damage is done around that area right now, so there -- and the immediate area has been cleared of injured folks. So we're just trying to make sure we don't get anybody else injured.

VAUSE: So, do you think you have checked all of the houses which have been damaged? Do you believe you have accounted for everybody at this stage?

WILSON: Well, I was one of the first responders to get into the area when they put the all-help call out for all police agencies and firefighters in the area. I actually searched numerous houses myself. And, you know, I got some people to come out of their houses. The houses were windows blown through, doors blown off the hinges and there is a lot of glass and debris everywhere in the 50 to 75 houses that I saw that were damaged. And at that time, before they cleared all the EMS workers out again due to the fact the plant might explode from secondary explosions, I did not see any other victims or people in the area. So that's a good sign. So hopefully we got everybody out of there.

VAUSE: But, at this hour, the search is continuing. The emergency workers and the police, the first responders, are they still going house to house?

WILSON: Sure, yes. We are going to continue doing that all night, when we feel it's safe to do so, we will go through there all night, and that try to get a count of all the residents. It's a small community about 2,800 people live in the community. So, just like any other small town, we are going to know if people are missing and if they need to be accounted for. So, there may be a house to house and maybe a particular house, we need to look at instead of try a wide search. So, that is what we are hoping (INAUDIBLE).

VAUSE: Finally, sir, how are people dealing with this? I imagine a lot of people are in shock right now. What are they been telling you?

WILSON: Yes. I haven't gone out to meet many people. Just in the duties I have to perform right now. But, just talking to a few folks, the surrounding communities have just -- we are here at a facility, auction barn and supplies, water, diapers, clothes is just piling up to the ceiling. People are out pouring trying to help this community get through this. This is a small community, the west, and just real good people and folks here and sad that it happens to anybody. We are hoping the town can pull together and get through this.

VAUSE: Well, it is Texas.

Sir, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

D. L. Wilson of the Texas patrol over right there giving us the very latest from the police point of view, from the emergency responder's point of you on the situation in West, Texas -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, John. We're going to go back to our Martin Savidge who is there on the scene, of course. So, we heard from Martin just a short time ago, in fact.

Marty, just bring us up to date, if you would, on the situation there, what you are learning, new information that you have on this fire and explosion and the aftermath of this fertilizer plant?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Rosemary, we are at the command post which is set up at a cattle action site. It has now been taken over by emergency personnel. But, we are told that there is going to be some kind of briefing coming up in the next few minutes. So, there is a large gathering of the media here and a whole stack of microphones as we wait to hear the latest information.

Right now, there are a number of concerns. And I think they were expressed by the highway patrol officer, there the bearer, looking, one for those who still may be trapped or those who maybe injured. And then there's going to be this problem with the weather shift that is coming in. That's expected around daylight. Wind shift, rains going to be coming and a lot of things that will make their efforts even more difficult.

I was talking to a number of the residents. They have come to this command post because like everybody else, they were evacuated. They don't know where to go and they are trying to find out what exactly is happening in their community.

It is a small town, 2800 people as been pointed out. And as a result of that, people here, a lot of them know one another and they know those who have been impacted or affected.

I was talking to 76-year-old Eleanor Castro. She said she was in her bathroom at the time of the blast, and it was so forceful that she had to grab onto the sink just to keep herself upright. She said then the power went out and nobody knew what had happened. And they were -- immediately neighbors came out. Windows were shattered and homes are partially destroyed in some areas. She said that they were leveled. She knows other valley members whose homes have been wiped out. So we are just watching now as it looks like a fire official is coming to the microphones. And I'm going to listen in here.

CHURCH: All right, we are obviously going to have difficulties listening from our vantage point. But certainly our Martin Savidge will keep an eye on that news conference and bring us the main details as they come through to him.

But at this point, we are learning, of course, the main concerns, looking for those people trapped in the rubble of the aftermath of this fire and explosion. There's fear of the possibility of another explosion. That is a concern for any of those first responders there. There's a fertilizer truck that is causing a lot of concern and of course, then the weather because by daybreak, we are expecting a shift in the winds, and with that, of course, brings even more concerns for those responders on the ground there.

So we are looking at those aerial shots, the fire that sparked this explosion. We know that half of that town of West, Texas has been evacuated. So the whole town is about 2,800 people. We are talking about 1,400.

OK. It looks like -- we certainly got a visual there on this news conference, certainly. Let's listen in.

SERGEANT PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT: There was a fire at the West fertilizer company in downtown West, Texas. Once that fire started, their fire department responded. Numerous firefighters went to the scene to assist in putting that fire out. As they were at the scene, they realized the seriousness of what they had based on it being a fertilizer plant.

We knew there was hydrous ammonia in there. We realized the volatility of that, and how explosive it could be. They immediately started doing some evacuations of homes, of businesses, trying to get people out of the area.

Approximately 50 minutes of their response, there was a massive explosion at that fertilizer plant. They were in the process of removing people from homes, a nursing home in the area, and also an apartment complex. I can tell you from me driving to the scene there, there is quite a bit of devastation in that area. There are victims that were in homes. There are victims from the nursing home. And there are victims also from an apartment complex. (INAUDIBLE).

I can tell you that once they started trying to clear the injured out, there were a tremendous response from law enforcement agencies, McLennan the sheriff's department, Waco PD, Waco fire, the county emergency management, and other numerous agencies responded to west to assist them with their request. Many ambulance companies, medical personnel also assisted here, as well. And they are still here, still trying to help and get the wounded out.

Most of the folks that are wounded are being taken to advent area, to a local hospital, and that's where they're being triaged. They are also setting that up as a resource center for people to be evac too, because we are evacuating homes in the area based on the ongoing danger of the fires that were still there. Some are still going on. They got most of them under control. But they are trying to move people out and get them evacuated out of that area still.

At this point, we don't know a number that have been killed. I will confirm there have been fatalities. I think we will see those fatalities increase as we get towards the morning. Numerous injuries have been moved from the scene to a hospital. We have taken them into our city McLennan (ph) and the White note (ph) and Hillcrest and providence hospital where they're being treated. Hillcrest hospital is our primary trauma care center. The majority of the injured were taken there. The overflow was taken to Providence hospital as well inside Waco.

At this time, we are still trying to evacuate some of the homes. We are going house to house, business to business, and we're seeing quite a bit of devastation in that area. What they're trying to do is move people away still. They're having to be very cautious, because there is structural damage to homes and businesses. We have to be very cautious because of there being gas lines.

Our utility systems are here. They have entered the area and are cutting off the main flow of gas, metro gas. They're cutting off power so we don't have secondary fire from electricity spark fire (INAUDIBLE).

So currently, we are still there. Many agencies are here assisting West PD. I can tell you that the mayor has been here earlier tonight. He is also a firefighter for this city. It has taken a toll on him, because he knows potentially he's lost some firefighters.

I can confirm there may be firefighters that are unaccounted for, and potentially a law enforcement officer, as well. We are still trying to determine that. Obviously, they were there on scene directing traffic and fighting the fire and helping with the evacuation.

Again, we don't know a hard number of the fatality count. As soon as we can get that, we will get that information to you.

They were still pulling people out of some of the homes. Yes, people are trapped. Are they still at this point finding them? I don't know. We did find some earlier. They are still going from house to house. My guess is they're going to find some people still trapped.


SWANTON: I know that they have shut areas of utilities and power off to not only the immediate blast area, but other areas that think may be affected or keep from additional injuries or harm from happening. A lot of that is ongoing and that is a process. I will tell you there's been a tremendous amount of resources and outpouring from the community. Not only here in West, those of you that don't know West, it's about 2,800 people. They are a very close nit, tight nit community here. They have relied heavily on each other tonight for the support that they've got. They have relied heavily on the outpouring of support from additional agencies in and around the area.

I will tell you we have seen involvement not only from McLennan County, which is where we are, but we are seeing surrounding agencies from additional counties in and around McLennan County that are here as well helping. There has been a huge outpouring of that. There's a law enforcement command post set up. There's an incident command post set up. They have had met people on scene. They are working with some of the local meteorologists here. As you know, we have three significant strong south winds throughout the night. At some point, we are hearing about seven or so in the morning. All winds are going to switch to the north and we are going to continue to be a strong, so we're looking at another area that may be affected once the winds shift.

We are still in the process of trying to get people out and get them to help and also those that have not been injured but affected by the blast. We are trying to get them somewhere where they are safe for the night. They start to get them with some resources.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: It was reported there were 50 to 60 fatalities. What can you say about that report?

SWANTON: I can't confirm that at all. I don't know who the doctor was that confirmed that. I have not heard that number.

Let me do this. I know you have a few questions. I will try to answer what I can, but you got to get a lot of I'm not sure yet from me. But, let me call on you so we don't just get too crazy here. Somebody over here. Yes, sir?


SWANTON: They were still moving people out of the immediate area. I don't know how far-ranging that was. It's my guess at this point they're trying to keep people from coming into the area, absolutely for safety reasons, because we don't know yet. We haven't been able to assess totaling the damage and what harm may lay there. Yes, sir.


SWANTON: I know that there was a small contingent of firefighters that went back into the plant, based on there being a fire burning underneath several ammonium tanks that they were very concerned about. If those catch or get to a flashpoint, obviously those would go and we would have second or third explosions. They had that fire under control, and I don't think that is any longer a threat.


SWANTON: I can't verify that. I know the mayor is here. He didn't say anything about that, but I cannot verify that.

Yes, sir?


SWANTON: I don't know that, sire.


SWANTON: The abundance of caution of what?


SWANTON: Because we don't know. We don't know the numbers yet. They are still pulling victims out. They are still bringing victims to triage. And until we have a good estimate, we don't want to guess. We want to be very specific with you and give you facts, not guesses.

Yes, ma'am?


SWANTON: Absolutely. But, I can tell you, when I got here, my assignment was to go into the immediate area at the command post. They moved me after I got there, but on the way in, I can tell you that I saw homes that were burning. There were homes that had significant devastation based on windows blown out, bricks pulled off, a signing pulled off, some homes were leveled. It was almost tornadic (ph) in effect. It looked like to me one home would be fine but the next two or three would be extreme devastation.


SWANTON: I don't know that, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: At this moment, are more than zero confirmed dead?

SWANTON: More than zero. Yes, ;m telling you we have confirmed fatalities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: How many are confirmed dead?

SWANTON: I'm not confirming a number. I'm telling there are confirmed fatalities. Not enough.


SWANTON: EMS, fire -- let me make sure I'm very clear on that. We know fire was there. We now law enforcement was there assisting with traffic. And I believe there were EMS. I have -- I will tell you this, but I have not verified. I heard that there was a helicopter somewhere on scene that actually sustained some damage in the blast. I'm working to confirm that, as well. I don't know for sure if that's a fact or not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Any indication as to the cause of fire?

SWANTON: No. At this point we don't know. That is something they will look at whether that is a criminal activity or just a fire that got sparked from some type of chemical reaction.

Yes, ma'am.


SWANTON: Certainly air quality is a concern. There are people here that are well versed in what that issue may be. They are looking at all the weather events going on around us, where the clouds may drift, what potentially is in that cloud and what may or may not cause harm. That is something that they are working on for the last hours or so.


SWANTON: We know it's coming, and they have evac plans, but they probably going to whole problem and change the way they need to.


SWANTON: We don't know. Again, you have to understand this is a downtown area. And when I say downtown area, there are businesses there, there are apartments there, a nursing home was there, there are homes in the area. It is going into a mid-sized city and having to search it home by home, business by business, block by block. It is a very tedious process. They have to be extremely careful. The reason utilities have been shut off, we don't want anybody else injured, stepping on live wires. That's all part of what they're having to be very cautious about.

Yes, Sir?


SWANTON: I know there were numerous people injured at the nursing home. Most of those were in the process of being evacuated. I don't have a confirmation about whether there was anybody killed.


SWANTON: Hold on just a second, guys.


I do not. Yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE). Can you give us an estimate how many structures are leveled?

SWANTON: I cannot. Probably until the morning until we know the true devastation about what occurred. If you saw the video, you saw how dramatic the explosion was. It was a huge explosion and it -- depending on what was around it, the concussion could be far ranging.

Yes, sir?


SWANTON: One more time.


SWANTON: I'm being told that those are used by the ground teams to clear houses. I don't know the significance of the colors at this point. One more question.


SWANTON: I don't know at this point. Hopefully in the morning we will be able to give you much more detail on how far-reaching it was. I will get back with you as we have new information. I will tell you I appreciate you all being here and waiting for this information. I know you're wanting to get to where maybe you can see more of it. I would ask that you not to, because it is not safe. It is not safe for you to go here. So please remain here with us. And as we can, we are coming out and giving you bits and pieces.


VAUSE: We have been listening to W. Patrick Swanton, a sergeant with the Waco police department. He is also a spokesperson for the Waco police, giving us some valuable information, some updated information there.

What he has said is that there are still fires which continue to burn. We know that, but he did say that the fire under one of the chemical tanks, there was some threat of a possible explosion. He believes that that threat is no longer there.

He also said that this search, going to from door to door, this tedious process of looking for anybody who may still be trapped in their homes is continuing. And it is a slow, pain staking process, and it seems that right now, everybody is just simply waiting until first light. It is 27 past 3:00 in the morning eastern time, 27 past 2:00 in the morning in Texas. So now, everyone that's waiting for the sun to come up to assess the full damage of this blast and it seems that they are also preparing for what appears to be a fairly significant change in the weather, which could come in the next few hours, Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes. And sergeant Swanton was very careful to avoid giving any numbers on fatality. Of course, people calling for this, there had been an earlier report on local TV of 60 to 70 people dead. He said I have no idea where those numbers came from. He will not give out any of those numbers. He doesn't want any guess work on this. People will get that number in possibly a number of hours from now, a daybreak perhaps. As he said, they don't know yet the total damage. They don't know if there are people still trapped in there.

There was a lot they don't know at this point. They said numerous people injured at the nursing home. He doesn't have a number on that. An interesting point that was raised there. He was asked about how this fire occurred. He said he doesn't know if this fire was a criminal act or it was sparked by some chemical reaction, interesting point there. But they have turned off the power, and that is to reduce injuries. They are being very cautious.

VAUSE: Yes. And what we have been hearing over and over again is that the primary focus right now is on saving lives, getting people out of the scene, getting them evacuated and then they will try and take care of the fire and then comes the investigation into how this was caused.

But right now -- and we heard this from whoever we will be talking to either the fire department, the hospitals and now the police department from Waco, essentially saying the primary focus her is on saving lives and trying to take care of these people who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go.

CHURCH: All right. And we are going to, of course, continue to follow this story. We are going to take a short break. We will have more when we come back. Stay with us.


CHURCH: We welcome our viewers fro right across the globe wed. Breaking news out of the up to of West, Texas, a massive fertilizer plant explosion has killed at least two people. Injured more than 150 and some firefighters and possibly a police officer may be missing at this time. There's still a lot of questions. We don't have a lot of answers to this. We are trying to piece it together ourselves. Half the town has been evacuated. Those toxic fumes pour from the smothering ruins of the plant and dozens of nearby homes, hundreds of emergency workers are at the scene and federal safety authorities are being sent to investigate.

VAUSE: OK, Rosemary. Martin Savidge is actually in Wes, Texas by now. He joins us once again on the line.

Martin, we have the chance to listen to Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton here. I'm sure you had the chance to listen to him there. I get the feeling that right now maybe without putting words in his mouth that the worst of this disaster has now past. They are still checking for people who may have been wounded, those who may still be trapped in their homes, but now everyone seems to be waiting until morning.

SAVIDGE (via phone): Right. And I think that's sort of the way he summarized it was the fact that they are doing as much as they can in the darkness and in the devastation. It is interesting to know that they are still trying to evacuate people, and that is a problem that has made difficult as a result of the damage that's in the area. Roadways are blocked, power lines are down, buildings have collapsed. And so, it's making it difficult, even if they find survivors, to transport them out of harm's way and that being the potential for another explosion from any kind of danger from the anhydrous ammonia which are the hum fumes that they are very worried about from this fertilizer plant.

But it does seem that the initial wave of those you have been injured have now been taken to nearby hospitals, primarily in Waco about 20 miles away. We have over 150 people that are being treated. They have everything from minor to moderate to some people having very severe injuries. You also heard that they know that there are fatalities. They can confirm that there are fatalities, just simply they won't give a number. And ominously, you also heard that they do anticipate that the number of those killed is likely to rise throughout the day. Daylight is going to be the biggest assist they get. It is still completely dark in this area. It is the middle of the night. There are hundreds of responders that have come in, fire, police, emergency rescue personnel. So they are at work inside the area near that fertilizer plant. But the area say around eight or nine blocks around that plant is heavily damaged. The term devastated extreme devastation is what is being used by those firefighters and first responders that have come into the area there. Some of the areas that they have been focusing on was a nursing home that was located just a couple of blocks away from the fertilizer plant. That had at least 153 people in it at the time. There was an apartment complex with at least 50 units and then, there were houses nearby that facility, as well. Those took the full brunt of the blast. And that is the area where you saw the greatest number of injuries, also, if there are further fatalities, where they're likely to be found.

You know, the way this played out, John, it was rather diabolical in the way nature work in the sense that there was a fire that was reported around 6:00 local time here in the evening, and the firefighters responded. Now, the moment they got on site they realized it was no ordinary fire, it was a large fire. They knew the plant. They knew its potential danger. And so, they went about starting the evacuations of the immediate nearby properties while still trying to assess how they could fight the fire. They knew evacuation had to come first, because that was the greatest danger to the surrounding population. Fifty minutes later, authorities say that is when the first devastating explosion happened. And this is why you have the concern that there are law enforcement and emergency personnel who are, as they put it, unaccounted for. Because they were there, facing down that blast when it went off trying to evacuate people. It is hard to imagine a more devastating impact when you have the first responders coming in and the plant blowing up in their face, John.

VAUSE: Yes. No ordinary fire indeed which are why there are some law enforcement officials, some firefighters who maybe among the dead.

Martin, I don't know if you can answer this question but, when we have covered these kinds of disasters in the past, I mean, we are now nine, what, nine hours -- ten hours since the initial fire, normally they do give you a death toll. They say at this stage, there are two people dead and then they update it throughout the evening. Is there idea -- clear why, any clear indication as to why they're not just simply updating the death toll as it goes on?

SAVIDGE: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. Number one, what makes it more difficult is the fact that you have the ongoing threat of further explosion, so you can only go so close to that plant. And then, you have the danger of the fumes. So, the normal ability to go in in the immediate aftermath and began figuring out who is alive and who is dead is complicated by the fact that this plant still has the ability to claim lives. And so, both from an emergency responders safety point of view, the focus has been on rescuing those who can be saved. Those who cannot be, they are unfortunately not a high priority at this particular time, because there is nothing you can do for them. So, I think that's one of the reasons.

This is not say like a car bombing that you might see and overseas, because once the blast has gone off, that's when the tallies can be done. Here, the danger persists, it hangs in the air or it claims lower to the ground and then there is a threat of further explosion. There are still fires. So that's why you probably aren't getting an accurate number.

VAUSE: Explain something for me that sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said during his press briefing just a short time ago. He talked about the eight or nine blocks around this fertilizer plant and he described it as being downtown, that these searches going house to house, business to business. Is that how you would describe it, as its location in West, Texas?

SAVIDGE: Well, I mean, I have to say I haven't been down to the plant but I have looked at the maps and listened to the officials describe it. You know, it's a small town, and this was a big plant in a small town. And a blast like this has devastated literally the heart of the community. The mayor said he thought it was akin to some sort of almost a nuclear blast. Many people said they just -- they had no idea what had happened. The explosion was so severe that they knew it wasn't thunder. They knew it wasn't an earthquake, but they also knew at the same moment, it was something devastating.

I talked to people here. They are shell shocked. I mean, you could see that in their faces. They had that blank stare. It's almost an automatic response, and yet it's emotional, you know. They are suffering from a devastation within them, on top of the physical devastation that they witnessed around them, John.

VAUSE: Yes, of course. And this is just the start. This is only ten hours since the blast. Of course, we're now waiting for first light to find out the full extent of the damage to know how many people have been killed, just how many homes and how many buildings have been destroyed.

Martin Savidge is with us. He is on the line from West, Texas.

Martin, we thank you for that. And we will be talking to you here in CNN throughout the day as you continue to cover this -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes. And John, there is actually a haunting historical aspect to this story. As witness says, fire came one day after the 66th anniversary of the worst industrial accident in American history. That was the Texas City disaster. That was another fertilizer explosion and I'm reading here, that left 581 people dead. That was when a French vessel was hauling ammonium nitrate that caught fire. So, a tragic coincidence there just to read some historical perspective.

All right, weather, of course, has been a major concern here. And we are watching that very closely, because we expect it to play a very big role as you heard throughout our coverage here. Let's go back to our meteorologist Ivan Cabrera. Because, Ivan, I know you have been covering this very carefully and this is going to make a big difference for first responders there on the ground.

IVAN CABRERA, METEOROLOGIST: They're going to make a difference if there are search and rescue teams that are still trying to find the folk together and the medical help they need. They are going to have to contend with severe thunderstorms that are rolling through. This is just horrific time in here. Of course though, we knew this front was coming. We did not know, obviously, what was going to transpire yesterday.

Here's Texas. Severe thunderstorm watch now in effect, very close to where we have that fertilizing explosion, expecting that watch to be extended further to the east as storm is just not there yet. We're about 4 1/2 to 5 hours from the storms as they continue to roll in.

I want to show you some of these storms are already prompting severe thunderstorm warnings here right through San Angelo through Abilene (ph) and heading to the northeast. All right, of these lines will continue pushing to the east. There's Dallas and Waco to the north, extreme northern and the right along the county line. That's where we have the fertilizer plant and I'm expecting again those winds to be very gusty out of the south between 20 and 35 miles an hour.

The only thing that's going to happen when those line of storms roll through is the winds are going to shift. They are going to shift to the north but remain very gusty. The entirety effect, not only through the day, we are probably not going to get the winds to relax until Friday afternoon. But they will shift very early in the day from the south to the north and west.

And as that squall line moves through, we are going to have heavy rain, large hail and frequent lightning. Keep in mind with the squall line, you can always have the potential of some rotating the thunderstorms here. So, we will watch that closely. But even straight line winds can gust upwards of 70 miles per hour. And this is a dynamic cold front, an unbelievable change in weather.

Temperatures will drop. By the time we get to the mid afternoon, the folks will be needing winter coats. Temperatures are going to be falling in the 40s and by the time we get into the nighttime hours, we are going to have temperatures in the 30s. But first thing is first, the squall line moving through, again, I'm expecting that right around sun rise. So we are not going to be seeing a lot of bright skies out there. It is going to be a thick canopy of clouds and under those clouds. We are going to have some nasty thunderstorms to contend with throughout the day, just an incredible scene there in Texas, covering two national tragedies here in just one week. Unbelievable stuff, Rosemary.

CHURCH: It certainly is. And many thanks to you, Ivan, for keeping an eye on all of that. We are going to take a short break now. Of course, we will continue to cover this story after that short break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHURCH: Welcome back. I'm Rosemary Church.

We are following breaking news out of Texas, where at least two people are dead, possibly many more. But authorities are refusing to give out those numbers. This happening, of course, after a fire and huge explosion at a fertilizer plant.

Now, it happened in the small town of west, Texas near Waco. The entire area has been evacuated. Dozens of homes and a nearby apartment complex are destroyed. Hospitals are treating at least 150 people injured by that blast and, of course, the fire. Authorities say that fire is contained but still smoldering.


AUDREY TODD, WITNESS: I got a call from my neighbor, and I just -- I came over here and all I know is all I saw was cars just headed everywhere. It was crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Did you hear the explosion?

TODD: Honestly, at my mom's house, I did not feel it. But I know my aunt was in church and they felt it over there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything was nice, calm, chill. And then we -- it was about 7:50 when the -- we heard the big boom, and then we were fishing right underneath the bridge at the lake and the whole bridge shook.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: How far away do you think that is?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: About 10, 10-15 miles from here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: So it was a big explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. It sounded like somebody had a blowout on the bridge but there were no cars passing.


VAUSE: (INAUDIBLE) Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton just wrapped up a news conference a few moments ago. He is a spokesman for a Waco police department. That is about three kilometer -- 30 kilometers or so away from the explosions, maybe 18 miles. Here's some of what he had to say.


SWANTON: At this point, we don't know a number that have been killed. I will confirm there have been fatalities. I think we will see those fatalities increase towards the morning. Numerous injuries have been moved from the scene to a hospital. We have taken them in to our city limits, into Waco, into Hillcrest and providence hospital where they're being treated. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCH: Now, firefighters in West, Texas are concerned about a gas called anhydrous ammonia, and it's a fertilizer. Now, the centers for disease control and prevention have listed it as a pungent gas with suffocating fumes. It is made up of nitrogen and hydrogen and when exposed to humans, it can cause breathing difficulties, irritation of eyes, nose or throat, burns or blisters and exposure to high concentrations can even lead to death. Now, when it's released in the air, the vapors initially move close to the ground, causing a greater risk for exposure.

VAUSE: And of course, that does pose a lot of problems when it comes to air quality. Hundreds of firefighters and other first responders may be breathing hazardous chemicals.

Chief medical correspondent doctor Sanjay Gupta spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett about the dangers.


DOCTOR SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: As soon as you hear fertilizer, you think about some very combustible, explosive chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. And when we heard about fertilizer explosions in the past is, it is always a concern. And besides the blast injury itself, which sounds like it was pretty significant, I think you were talking to some of the city a couple of miles away, they felt the impact of this.

And the sort about the burn, the flasher backs and also just the chemical itself, I think one of those people who said the guards are wearing respirators.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, AC360: They saw state police wearing respirators, aspirators.

GUPTA: Yes. That would not surprise me, because the air in that area is going to quickly become a concern, when you have these sorts of chemicals, those explosive and now being released in the air in great quantities. So, we've seen these types of explosions in the past. Those are pretty standard protocols. But, you know, frankly, with all the blast injuries we've been talking about this week in regard to Boston, those same sorts of injuries you have to be concerned about here, as well.

COOPER: And obviously, fertilizer is used in explosive devices, so you can understand why it's so flammable.

GUPTA: Yes. We talk about ammonium nitrate. And one of its primary uses is fertilizer. But its other primary use is an explosive. So, this -- fertilizer plants are always of concern for that very reason.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST, OUTFRONT: And we were talking about where it was located. I just came talking to someone two miles away. We are talking someone one mile away and, you know, blast windows pulling out. They're describing it as a rural area, but there was an apartment complex, there is a school and nursing home.

Doctor, I know that you don't know everything about fertilizer plants and where they are located. But, it would be unusual to be located near a nursing home, apartment complex?

GUPTA: Yes. I mean, that's a fair question. But, I can tell you one thing besides the obvious sort of physical damage to the nursing home, the air quality in there. This is of no small concern. I imagine in addition to rescuing people in that nursing home, the rescue workers themselves, my guess is they are going to have to be fully protected and quickly trying to get, you know, clean air and oxygen to people who are potentially, I guess, may be trapped I heard earlier in that nursing home.


CHURCH: All right, clearly, some major concerns there.

I want to go back to Heather Beck of providence health center. She is the communications specialist there on the phone again from Waco, Texas.

Heather, could you bring us up to date on what the situation is there at the hospital?

HEATHER BECK, PROVIDENCE HEATH CENTER (via phone): Yes. Currently we are seeing a little bit of a slowdown. We still have treated 65 patients. And we have had 12 admissions from those patients and we have only one patient in critical condition.

Again, we are treating patients of all ages and we are seeing moderate injuries, mainly, consisting of broken bones, lacerations, bruises, cuts and, of course, some respiratory distress.

CHURCH: So, that person you mentioned in critical condition, what sort of situation is that patient?

BECK: I'm not able to elaborate further on that, just that we have the one patient in critical condition.

CHURCH: And that's good news that you are saying there's been a slowdown here. And though, you have treated 65 patients, presumably you have released some of those patients after treatment, I'm takings of that?

BECK: Yes, that's correct. At the 65, we have only admitted 12 at this point. We may still admit more, but it is nice that we just admitted 12 and we treated 65.

CHURCH: And so, the most part, those injuries, what parts of the body are we talking broken legs, are we talking broken arms here?

BECK: All of the above. We have seen some head injuries and some minor burns. I believe major burns are being routed to Parkland hospital in Dallas. CHURCH: And overall, I mean, now that it has slowed down, what are people telling you? What are patients telling as they come through for help at your clinic?

BECK: I'm not a clinical worker, so I'm not working in direct patient care. And I can tell you that our patients are upset, they're in shock. They're obviously traumatized from the events of this evening. But our caregivers are mainly focused on treating their injuries at this time.

CHURCH: And what about when those people are leaving, these people have their lost their homes, what sort of stories are they telling you about their situation on the ground there?

BECK: Yes, some people have lost their homes. And we do have a list of area shelters that we are providing to our patients that identifies a place for them to go if they need a place to stay.

CHURCH: This is the problem, isn't it, the conditions are pretty bad there when it comes to the weather, it is going to be cold, the problem is. But then, we're talking about a small town here, 2,800 people or so. It sounds like it's a town where people know each other very well. They are going to take people in if there are any problems as far as shelter. Is that what you year hearing?

BECK: Absolutely. West is a very tight nit community. And although, it is 26 miles away from Waco, we have a lot of associates that work here at Providence, in fact, that are from west and live in west. And we are praying for all the people affected by this tragedy. But yes, you are correct. There is a lot of support from the community because it is a tight nit community.

CHURCH: And that is the beauty of this small town.

Heather beck from Providence health center saying there that they have slowed down the number coming through, they have seen 65 patients, one in critical condition. We are talking about broken limbs here, some burns, minor in most instances. But, they are keeping an eye on that.

We are going to take a very short break. We will have more on the aftermath of this fire and explosion at the fertilizer plant there in West, Texas.

Do stay with us.


VAUSE: And welcome back once more. Time now to update you on the breaking news out of that small town of West, Texas. At least two people dead, 150 others are wounded after a huge fertilizer plant explosion.

CHURCH: Authorities say just about every building in a five- block radius is destroyed. Rescue workers are having to proceed carefully, of course, because the plant is still smoldering and toxic gases are a serious concern here.

Well, Tommy Muska is the city's mayor and he a member of the all volunteer fire department, as well. He told our Piers Morgan about his experience. Take a listen.


MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA, EST, TEXAS: I was about two blocks away responding to the fire when it exploded.

PIERS MORGAN, CNN ANCHOR, PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT: We are getting conflicting reports, but it would seem a very large number of properties, of homes, have been completely collapsed.

MUSKA: The blast took out about a five block radius from the fertilizer plant.

MORGAN: So, how many homes do you think have been flattened in this?

MUSKA: Oh, 60, 70, 80.

MORGAN: And these are private homes with residents?

MUSKA: Yes, these are private residential homes, one school, one nursing home, one apartment.

MORGAN: And do you expect there will be many people who have died in these homes?

MUSKA: I don't know. I have no -- obviously it was a devastating, huge explosion. So there's going to be casualties. I just don't know a number. There are a number of injuries and they've been taken to Waco hospitals. So we've got that under control. Now we're just going house by house search and rescue, OK?

MORGAN: Mister Mayor, just finally, where were you when the explosion happened?

MUSKA: I was a couple of blocks -- I'm a member of the fire department, so I was on my way to the fire. And I just turned the corner about three blocks away and it blew up.

MORGAN: What was the feeling that you had?

MUSKA: I just never seen an explosion like that. It was a ball of fire and it was like a nuclear bomb went off.


VAUSE: Of course, Rosemary, this comes at a time when the U.S. is already on the edge after the Boston marathon bombing and, of course, there has been allegation of poison ricin being sent to the president and to a U.S. senator and now this blast in Texas.

CHURCH: Yes. It is unbelievable what is happening in this country at the moment.

I'm Rosemary Church.

VAUSE: And I'm John Vause.

Please stay with us here on CNN. Our coverage of this blast in west, Texas continues after the break with "EARLY START."