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Friday, April 19, 2013

Death toll rises to 15 and SIXTY people still missing in Texas town devastated by huge explosion at fertilizer plant

The bodies of 15 people have been recovered after the enormous Texas fertilizer plant explosion that demolished surrounding neighborhoods for blocks and left around 200 other people injured, authorities said Friday.

Twelve bodies were taken out of the remains of the plant, another two were found in an apartment complex nearby and a man living in a nursing home died after being evacuated, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Senator John Cornyn said on Friday that 60 people are still unaccounted for, but authorities hope that number will drop.

Officials said that 25 houses in the blast area remain to be searched, as reported by the Star-Telegram. According to Senator Cornyn, authorities are currently checking hospitals and 'making sure they know where people are.'

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said it was 'with a heavy heart' that he confirmed 12 bodies had been pulled from the area of the plant explosion. Reyes added that three fire rescue trucks and one EMS vehicle were destroyed in the blast.

Even before investigators released a confirmed number of fatalities, the names of the dead were becoming known in the town of 2,800 and a small group of firefighters and other first responders who may have rushed toward the plant to battle a pre-explosion blaze was believed to be among them.

On Thursday, it was reported that eight emergency responders, five of them West volunteer firefighters, were among the dead or missing.

Reyes said he could not confirm Friday how many of those killed were first responders. The mourning already had begun at a church service at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church the previous night.

'We know everyone that was there first, in the beginning,' said Christina Rodarte, 46, who has lived in West for 27 years. 'There's no words for it. It is a small community, and everyone knows the first responders, because anytime there's anything going on, the fire department is right there, all volunteer.'

One victim Rodarte knew and whose name was released was Kenny Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire Department who lived south of West. He was off duty at the time but responded to the fire to help, according to a statement from the city of Dallas.

Authorities spent much of the day after Wednesday night's blast searching the town for survivors. Reyes said those search and rescue efforts continued early Friday. Investigators also searched for clues to the cause of the explosion and inferno

Officials said there was no indication of foul play in the blast at West Fertilizer Co, which they said had not been inspected since 2006, was storing potentially combustible ammonium nitrate and was located in a residential area.

The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas said in a statement on Thursday that six firefighters, four paramedics and one other first responder died Wednesday night as they battled a blaze the West Fertilizer Company.

'We were all volunteers. There was not one person that got paid to be there. Not one person that was ordered to go there,' Brice Reed, an EMT with the West Volunteer Fire Department, told CNN. Reed also rushed into the blast zone, but survived and was visibly shaken as he spoke.

Rescuers expect to find 14 bodies in the the rubble of the plant and the wreckage of 50 to 75 homes that were destroyed in the explosion, Mayor Tommy Muska said.

Muska says there is 'no sign of life' left in five-block radius that was flattened by the blast. A 50-unit apartment building was gutted. A middle school and a nursing home with 133 elderly patients nearby were both destroyed by fire.

A fire captain from Dallas who lived in West and rushed to help his neighbors is confirmed dead.

The volunteers were battling a fire at the plant last night when a tank of anhydrous ammonia - the same substance that fueled the 1995 Oklahoma City bombs - exploded with such force that it was felt 50 miles away and registered as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.

Several volunteer firefighters from other departments were in West for a training class when the fire at the fertilizer plant broke out and they heroically rushed to the scene, as well.

Six families have said publicly that they are missing loved ones, also. At least 179 people were injured in the explosion, 13 seriously.

As the dust settled on the small community of 2,800 people on Thursday morning, photographs revealed destroyed homes and debris-strewn roads in a four- or five-block radius around a massive charred crater where the plant once stood.

Later, Muska, who is himself a volunteer firefighter and was heading to the fertilizer plant when the blast occurred told the Dallas Morning News that the death toll might be lower - 14 to 16, which he described as a 'relief.'

Early reports put the death toll as high at 70. Muska had previously said up to 40 were missing and feared dead.

The only person confirmed killed thus far was Kenny 'Luckey' Harris, a 52-year-old captain in the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department who lived in West and ran to the fertilizer plant to help his neighbors put out the blaze.

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