On Wednesday evening, at least 15 people were killed and more than 160 others were injured after a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas. Volunteer firefighters had been battling a fire at the plant for approximately 20 minutes before the blast occurred. According to reports, the explosion was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake with the United States Geological Survey, and the massive plume of smoke could be seen up to 45 miles away. Officials said that the blast destroyed between 60 and 80 homes in the five-block radius around the plant. Nearly half of the town’s 2,800 residents have been evacuated, including 133 patients from a nearby nursing home.
The fertilizer plant, owned by Adair Grain Inc., was reportedly storing 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia, a gas used as fertilizer, is similar to the material that was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. According to reports, the plant was investigated in 2006 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a strong ammonia smell. In its most recent filing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), West Fertilizer Co. officials reported that the plant presented no risk of fire or explosion. The plant’s report to the EPA said the worst-case scenario would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would not kill or injure anyone.
State authorities are leading the investigation with the assistance of the federal government. Officials reported that the cause of the fire and explosion is unknown. As a precaution, the plant is being treated as a crime area, although local police reported that there is no indication of foul play. Authorities are still searching through the mounds of rubble in hopes of finding survivors of the explosion.