Gov. Rick Perry says the damage in West following Wednesday's devastating fertilizer plant explosion is so severe that he signed a disaster declaration for McLennan County.
Now roughly 14 hours since the blast, Perry said Texas Task Force 1 and 2 are both assisting in what a spokesman described earlier as a "slow, methodical" search for any victims still trapped in the rubble.
Each Texas Task Force is designed to carry out search and rescue missions in various regions of Texas. Task Force 1, which is made up of 540 members from 68 emergency departments in Texas, is headquartered in College Station. Task Force 2 adds more than 200 more responders and is based in Dallas.
"Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community," Perry said. "But as I said earlier, we're blessed in this state to have the best emergency management team in the country."
Speaking from Department of Public Safety headquarters Thursday afternoon, Perry said President Barack Obama called him enroute to Boston from Air Force One to offer the state federal resources. According to a White House pool report, the president also attempted to reach West Mayor Tommy Muska but has not been successful.
At about 8 p.m. Wednesday, the West Fertilizer Plant at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive blew up, creating a blast so powerful nearby homes slid off their foundations and had their roofs torn off. Perry estimated 75 homes sustained some sort of damage.
Emergency officials are still not comfortable issuing statistics on how many people were killed and injured. There are, however, confirmed fatalities.
Volunteer firefighters were battling a blaze at the plant before the explosion. Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, a spokesman from the Waco Police Department, said the fire likely triggered the blast. Some volunteer firefighters remain unaccounted for on Thursday.
The West Fertilizer Co. housed at least two 12,000 gallon tanks containing anhydrous ammonia, a colorless gas that is often housed under extreme pressure. Records from the Environmental Protection Agency show that the plant was fined in 2006 after a resident complained of an ammonia smell.
Investigators determined the plant did not maintain an adequate risk management system and fined owners $2,300. Speaking Thursday, TCEQ Executive Director Zak Covar said the company secured two air permits to resolve the violation and had not been fined since. Records show the facility had a compliance ranking of average.
He said the TCEQ only investigates locations like this one when they receive a complaint.
"We haven't had a complaint from that facility since 2006," Covar said. "They don't have any negative marks against their compliance."
The TCEQ is monitoring air quality around the destroyed plant. Covar said slight levels of particulate matter have been detected but not enough to qualify as a health concern. In an earlier news conference, Sgt. Swanton said the threat to the community was over.
The West Fertilizer Co. has been in business since 1962. Across the train tracks and about half a mile away sits the West Intermediate School, which sustained heavy damage in the blast. Perry said the campus is closed for the remainder of the week and that Texas Education Agency officials are working with the district to see about placing the affected students in another school.
The Fertilizer Company's operators have not responded to News 8 for comment.
Perry said the Department of State Health Services is assisting as well as the Texas National Guard. Texas Department of Transportation officials are helping with traffic in the town. The American Red Cross also set up a 211 hotline for anyone looking for help or needing to find loved ones.
Gas has been shut off to the town while investigators research what caused the explosion. So far, there's no evidence of criminal activity.
"People were, all over the town were knocked back 10 feet; some through windows, some into bathrooms, out of bed," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "Our prayers go out to every one of the families."