The town of West, Texas, population 2,849, awoke to a scene of horror after a large explosion at a fertilizer plant containing as much as 27 tons of anhydrous ammonia. The farm community near the city of Waco was built by Czech immigrants in the late 19th century and is still renowned for its kolaches and its smazeny syr. A fire started at the West Fertilizer Co. at around 7:29 p.m. local time Wednesday night, and what happened next is a mystery. Ammonia is typically stored as a refrigerated liquid, and material-safety sheets do not describe it a source of extreme explosion danger, but at ordinary atmospheric temperatures it boils and becomes a gas that can combust explosively in certain concentrations. It also seems possible that other fertilizers, more dangerous in the presence of fire, were stored at the site.
One way or another, the plant went up in a fireball about 24 minutes after the fire call, delivering a tremendous crack that resounded across north-central Texas. The blast was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey as the equivalent of an earthquake measuring 2.1 on the Richter scale. Authorities from West, Waco, and other communities in McLennan County are still going from house to house in the devastated northern half of the town, looking for survivors. At a press conference Thursday morning, West Mayor Tommy Mouska said that more than 160 people had been transported to area hospitals and there was still no word on exactly how many were killed. “I ask for your prayers,” Mouska said.
There are fears that as many as five volunteer firefighters may have been in or near the plant when the explosion hit; some EMS and police personnel are said to be unaccounted for; and shortly before 5 a.m. central time, a police spokesman gave a rough estimate, perhaps a lower bound, of “between five and 15 fatalities.” At that time, the latest count of the injured was 179, with 24 of those said to be in critical condition in nearby hospitals.
Remarkably, the destruction could have been much worse. A seniors’ home facing the fertilizer plant had its façade obliterated, but a quick-thinking EMS doctor had perceived the danger and moved the residents around the back in time to save them. Mouska confirmed Thursday morning that all of the residents in the nursing home were safe.
There are also concerns that a storm moving into the area could bring high winds, which could spread the existing fire and make it more difficult for firefighters to control.
Compounds that yield up nitrogen easily to the soil are prone to explosion for the same molecular reasons, and humans learned some horrifying lessons along the way to figuring out how to make and store those compounds safely. The German city of Oppau learned one in 1921; Nixon, New Jersey learned one in 1924; and the port of Texas City had a particularly frightful one in 1947—by a curious coincidence, on April 16.
Recommended resources for live updates include the Waco Tribune-Herald, the region’s newspaper of record, and ABC News’s page devoted to the story. The best bet for semi-intelligent TV coverage is probably MSNBC.