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Breaking News

Giant Explosion In West, Texas Levels Fertilizer Plant, 3 Confirmed Dead; Possible Break In Boston Marathon Bombing Case

Aired April 18, 2013 - 01:30   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Texas emergency, a giant explosion levels a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, at least three are confirmed dead. But authorities fear that number will rise.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: And a break in the case. Investigators circulate photos of two men who could be suspects in the Boston bombings.

CHURCH: Hello, and welcome to WORLD REPORT. I'm Rosemary Church.

VAUSE: And I'm John Vause. This is CNN's continuing coverage of two major stories from the United States.

And we begin with breaking news, a fire and a huge explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas.

Residents are being evacuated from the town of West. And there are fears that a second large fertilizer tank may explode. Hospitals are treating more than 100 injured people. There are at least three confirmed fatalities.

But authorities say that number could go much higher. We'd like to take a moment now to show you this video which was posted on It appears to show what looks to be a secondary explosion after the initial fire.


VAUSE (voice-over): The blast sent huge flames and a plume of smoke into the air. And the U.S. Geological Survey says the blast registered a magnitude 2.1.

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're in there searching the area right now, and making sure that 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 a lot of the wind blowing, changing the 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. We don't want that to explode again. But right now, we cannot get firefighters in there.

Right now, 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.

VAUSE (voice-over): And just to confirm, what D.L. Wilson, the Department of Public Safety spokesperson was saying there, emergency officials now believe 60-80 homes, an apartment complex has been leveled. 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 that fire is still burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

CHURCH: All right. We do want to show you exactly where this explosion happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHURCH (voice-over): The West fertilizer plant is in the small town of West, Texas. Now it's only 18 miles north of Waco. That's about 28 kilometers. West, Texas, is home to about 2,600 people.


CHURCH: Well, Tommy Masker is the city's mayor and he is a member of the all-volunteer fire department as well. He spoke with our Piers Morgan just a short time ago. Take a listen.


TOMMY MOUSKA, MAYOR OF WEST, TEXAS: I was about two blocks away responding to the fire when it exploded.

PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: We're getting conflicted reports, but it would seem that a very large number of properties, of homes, have been completely collapsing.

MOUSKA: The blast took about a five-block radius of the fertilizer plant.

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

MOUSKA: Oh, 60, 70, 80?

MORGAN: And these are private homes with residents?

MOUSKA: Yes, these are residential -- private residential home, one school, one nursing home, one apartment.

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

MOUSKA: I don't know. I have no -- I have no -- obviously, yes, there was a devastating, a huge explosion. So there's going to be casualties. I just don't know a number. And there's a number of injuries and they've all been taken to Waco hospital.

And so we've got that under control now. We're just going through a house-by-house search and rescue. OK?

MORGAN: And Mr. Mayor, just finally, where were you when the explosion happened?

MOUSKA: I was a couple of blocks -- I'm a member of the fire department, as well. So I was on my way to the fire. And I had just turned the corner about three blocks, two and a half blocks away. And it -- then it blew up.

MORGAN: What was the -- what was the feeling that you had?

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


CHURCH: Pierce Morgan there with the mayor. Now, firefighters in West, Texas, are concerned about a gas called anhydrous ammonia. Now that is a fertilizer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed it as a pungent gas with suffocating fumes.

It's made up of nitrogen and hydrogen. When exposed to humans, it can cause breathing difficulties, irritation of the eyes, nose or throat, burns or blisters. Exposure to high concentrations can even lead to death. That, of course, is the big concern here. And when it's released in the air, the vapors initially move close to the ground, causing a greater risk for exposure.

VAUSE: A Texas state policeman spoke to the media after returning from the area close to the blast. He described a scene of wide devastation.


WILSON: 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.


CHURCH: Now, a little earlier, we talked about some of the concerns for people on the ground there, some of the medical concerns. Let's take a listen now to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who was talking about this a little earlier.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: As soon as you hear fertilizer, you think about some very combustible, potentially explosive chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. I mean, we've heard about fertilizer explosions in the past.

And this is always a concern. And besides the blast injury itself, which sounds like it was pretty significant, I think you were talking to someone who said a couple of miles away they felt the impact of this. (Inaudible) about the burn, the flash effects and also just this chemical itself, I think one of the people who said there was -- the guards are wearing respirators.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: They say state police wearing respirators or aspirators. GUPTA: Yes, that would not surprise me just because the air in that area is probably going to quickly become of concern when we have these sorts of chemicals, both explosive and now being released in the air in great quantities.

So that -- we've seen these types of explosions in the past. And those are pretty standard protocols. But all, you know, frankly, in all the blast injuries that we've been talking about this week, with regard to what's happened in Boston, with those same sorts of injuries, you have to be concerned about here, as well.

COOPER: And actually fertilizer is used in explosive devices. So you can understand why it would be so flammable.

GUPTA: Yes , we talked about ammonium nitrate. And one of its primary uses in fertilizer, but its other primary use is in explosives. So this is a -- it's -- fertilizer plants are always of concern, but for that very reason.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And we were talking a little bit about where it's located. We were talking to someone two miles away. We were talking to someone one mile away, and blast -- windows blown out. But they were describing it as a rural area, but there was an apartment complex, there was a school and a nursing home.

I know that you don't know everything about fertilizer plants and where they're located, but it would it be -- would it be unusual to be located near a nursing home? An apartment complex?

GUPTA: Yes, 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 trying to rescue people in that nursing home, the rescue workers themselves, my guess is they're going to have to be fully protected and quickly try and get, you know, clean air, oxygen, to the people who are potentially, I guess, may be trapped, I heard earlier, in that nursing home.


VAUSE: Sanjay Gupta there. We have some information that we can confirm right now. Half of the town remains still evacuated. We are expecting storms to sweep through the area in the coming hours. There's still no firm numbers, as of yet, on the number of fatalities, although there are confirmed fatalities.

There are a tremendous amount of numbers of those who have been injured, probably over 100 and between 50-75 houses have been damaged.

We will take a short break here on CNN. But just ahead, we'll have more on the Boston terror probe. A law enforcement official says photos are now circulating of two men who authorities would like to talk to.


CHURCH: Viewers from across the globe join us as we continue this breaking news coverage of an explosion at a fertilizer plan in West, in Texas. Now so far, we are hearing from authorities -- they are not willing to give out a death toll number at all at this point. We will not expect to hear that for some hours.

Earlier, we had had confirmed numbers of three. But local television there has stated that number is as high as 60-70 dead. We do not know at this time, and authorities do not want any speculation on this matter.

We know about a hundred people have been injured. We're looking at a triage center that has been set up. There had been one set up on a football field. It had to be moved.

People are being evacuated from the town of the West at this point. Homes are demolished. We understand about 50-75 homes, a nursing home, a school has been affected. At this point, they are hoping to go house to house -- this is a residential area around this fertilizer plant. So there is much concern about the impact of this blast. So we'll continue to watch that story.

VAUSE: And, Rosemary, more than 30 departments from two different counties are assisting in the hazmat and firefighting efforts.

Joining me now by phone is Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton. He is a spokesman for the Waco Police Department. Waco, Texas, is about 18 miles north of where this explosion happened in West, Texas.

Sergeant, thank you for being with us. My first question, there is a lot of concern right now about the number of fatalities, the number of people who may have died. Is there any update on that?

SGT. W. PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT (on the phone): Yes, I can tell you, at this point, we have confirmed fatalities. We are not giving out a number. There have been lots of estimates and guesstimations on numbers.

But we are not doing that short of saying we have hundreds that have been injured in the explosion here that occurred in West. We do know there are fatalities. But at this point, we don't have a hard count on the number of fatalities that have occurred from this.

VAUSE: One of the concerns, clearly, is the toxic fumes which is coming from -- which are coming from the fire. And there is some concern that there will be further evacuations of West, which I understand about half the town has been evacuated? Is that correct?

SWANTON: That's correct. At this point, I can tell you about 6:00 pm tonight, the fire department here from West responded to a fire at the fertilizer plant. They understood the significance of what they were fighting and what the potential danger was there. They started evacuating around the fertilizer plant. And during that evacuation process, about 7 o'clock pm our time, there was a major explosion at the fertilizer plant. We know that there are firefighters that were there that, at this last check, had not been accounted for.

They were in the process of evacuating a nursing home that was in the immediate neighborhood as well as several residential homes and a 50-unit apartment complex.

I can tell you that the nursing home has sustained heavy damage. The 50-unit apartment complex also has sustained severe to heavy damage. And approximately 50-75 houses have been damaged.

West is a relatively small city, about 15 miles north of Waco on Interstate 35. General population of roughly around the area of 2,800. They have been helped tonight by numerous law enforcement agencies from in and around the counties, in surrounding counties.

Plenty of medical help has responded to our scene as well. At this point, they are in the process of continuing to try and get to the wounded and get them to medical assistance. At some point, unfortunately, this will turn into a recovery and I assume that our numbers will go up as far as fatalities.

VAUSE: So was I correct in hearing you, that firefighters may be among those who have been injured?

SWANTON: That's correct.

VAUSE: Do we have a number on that at this stage?

SWANTON: We do not. We are still in the process of trying to account for everybody. Obviously, something of this magnitude has many, many people injured. We don't know who's been taken to the hospital. We're still trying to count folks and see where everybody is. And we know who all is on scene. At this point, they're trying to determine where everybody is located.

VAUSE: At this point in time, sir, what would you say is the most pressing issue? What needs to be dealt with right now? What is the biggest threat at this point in time?

SWANTON: Obviously, we want -- there was earlier concern that there was a continuing fire at the plant under an anhydrous ammonia tank. That fire has been somewhat controlled. And they were in the process of making sure that nothing else has flared up.

Obviously, they will need to reevaluate wind direction, wind speed, to make sure there are no toxic fumes. Where -- to make this situation worse, we are experiencing some very heavy south winds due to an approaching front that's coming into our area.

At some time this evening or earlier this morning, the winds are going to shift around from the north so they're going to be a totally opposite direction than what they are now.

However, our emergency management people are here, our firefighters from all of the sources are here and we're preplanning for that, trying to make sure that we've got as many people out of harm's way as we can. And at this point, we're just asking for prayers for the town of West and everybody is doing the best they can to keep everybody safe.

VAUSE: And right now, there is no electricity in the town, is that correct?

SWANTON: One more time?

VAUSE: There is no electricity, power has been cut?

SWANTON: That's correct. They have cut the gas lines to the downtown area. Power is cut off to some areas. I don't know how widespread that is. That's certainly something that our utility companies are working with us on, to make sure we don't have secondary explosions from ruptured gas lines, ruptured gas meters in some of the businesses that were damaged, things along those lines.

VAUSE: Sgt. Swanton, we will leave it there, but we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and bringing us up to date on the very latest on the situation there. Thank you, sir.

CHURCH: All right. We want to go now to Ken Sury, who is the community editor of the "Waco Tribune-Herald." He's on the phone from Waco, Texas.

Sir, what are you able to tell us about this tragedy hilting the small town of West in Texas?

KEN SURY, COMMUNITY EDITOR, "WACO TRIBUNE-HERALD" (on the phone): Well, I think Officer Swanton did a pretty good job of explaining that. (Inaudible) he's there at the scene. We've got folks at the scene as well, but we're pretty much finding out the same information.

I mean, it is a -- it's a tragic situation and, as Officer Swanton said, it does seem like at some point it's going to be a recovery effort. But at this point, they don't know. And it's -- the area has to be safe, first, for them to go into.

CHURCH: A lot of people are amazed, in actual fact, that a fertilizer plant like this is right in the center of a residential area. Explain to us the history of this. How that got past city planning, if you like, to be right and slap bang in the middle of a residential area.

SURY: Well, it's not slap in the middle of a residential area. It's actually on the edge of town. But there is a residential area that is not too terribly far from it. The fertilizer plant, as far as I know, has been there for a number of years, and it has probably -- the residential area has probably grown up closer to it since then.

But, no, it is actually on the edge of town. But, you know, the blast is actually so large that it just wound up affecting such a large area.

CHURCH: So what do you know about the history of this plant?

SURY: Honestly, I couldn't say that I know much history about it at all?

CHURCH: Right. But it doesn't have any --


SURY: I just know that it's been there. I've been there one time on a different story (inaudible) wasn't related to the plant at all. So like I said I just know it's there and, you know, I don't know what kind of procedures are in place and what happened later in the day. So I don't think there would have been a minimal crew if anyone there at that point.

CHURCH: Now, earlier, local television --


CHURCH: -- Sir, earlier there, local television was reporting fatalities 60-70, perhaps, very high numbers. We were getting confirmed figures of three. And, of course, authorities there don't really want to put a number on this point. And we don't want to go down the road of speculation on this, either. But why did local television go that high so early in this reporting?

SURY: You know, I honestly couldn't say. I think they probably spoke with someone and someone was just giving a guess. And why they were guessing that number, you know, I couldn't say.

I don't think they really had anything to base that number on, unless they were looking at one of the damaged areas, and just assumed -- you know, there was an apartment complex that got heavily damaged that was near there. And there's also the nursing home not terribly far away. I'm thinking someone just extrapolated numbers. I'm not sure where they -- where those came up with.

CHURCH: Yes, just repeating, we have no idea at this point on those fatality numbers. And authorities wanting people to steer clear of any suggestions on any particular number. Ken Sury there, the community editor for the "Waco Tribune-Herald," many thanks to you for joining us.

VAUSE: Coming up here on WORLD REPORT, we'll have more on that Texas blast and the aftermath and the rescue efforts which continue at this hour.



VAUSE (voice-over): That was the explosion a few hours ago in the small town of West, Texas, this is our breaking news. At least two people are confirmed dead after that explosion, possibly many more after a fire and that explosion at a fertilizer plant. 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 have been leveled. Hospitals are treating at least 100 people who were hurt by the explosion. Authorities say the fire is contained, but still smoldering.

CHURCH: 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. I want to give you that number now. It is 254-202-1100. That's 254-202-1100.

Well, for an update on the weather conditions in and around the fertilizer plant fire, we want to turn to our meteorologist Ivan Cabrera, who joins us from the CNN Weather Center with the details.

And, Ivan, we heard earlier this fear about the changing direction of the wind. Talk to us about that. How that will affect this operation?

IVAN CABRERA, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, the change in direction is going to come with the cold front. This was going to be our lead story. No matter what, we've been tracking these nasty thunderstorms that are developing along a cold front.

Right now, the winds are out of the south. They are at 33 kilometers per hour. And we're talking about 21 mph for our U.S. viewers here.

The front is going to be coming in around 3:00 am, 4:00 am, and that's when we're expecting the thunderstorms to arrive. This is our live radar out of the Air Force base just nearly to the west here.

Look at that box there. You see that polygon? That is an indication of severe thunderstorm warning. Those are the kinds of storms that are going to roll through. What we're talking about here, I put the cursor, where we have, of course, West, Texas, that's in northern McClellan County there. That is where we're going to expect these line of storms to eventually approach.

That, again, will happen any time 3:00, 4:00 am local time tonight in association with the front that extends to the north through Oklahoma into Kansas. You see, my goodness, snow to the north of that. This is going to be a potent storm. We've been talking about this over the last several days.

As that happens, we're going to get that wind shift. The winds are going to be anywhere from 40-50 kilometers per hour. Rosemary, they are going to be out of the south and then eventually to the north. But with severe thunderstorms, you can certainly get wind gusts in excess of 60, 70 kilometers per hour. So we'll watch that closely for you through the night.

CHURCH: All right. We certainly appreciate that, Ivan Cabrera joining us there. I'm Rosemary Church.

And I'm John Vause. CNN's coverage of that massive explosion in Texas continues after a short break.