(WEST, Texas) — The mayor of the small Texas city devastated by an explosion at a fertilizer plant said that 35 to 40 people are unaccounted for.
Volunteer firefighters are among the missing, and authorities initially said they feared that five to 15 people could be dead. Officials later said that they would not give out any casualty numbers.
Mayor Tommy Muska told ABC News he believed that 35 to 40 people have not been accounted for.
Search-and-rescue teams in the town of West, Texas, are looking for survivors and missing people amid buildings where walls and roofs have been torn away and other buildings have been flattened by an explosion at a fertilizer plant.
“We have confirmed fatalities at this time. We don’t have the exact amount,” Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
One of the victims was Dallas Fire-Rescue Captain Kenny Harris, who was initially reported missing, according to a news release from the city of Dallas.
Harris was off-duty at the time of the blast and was not a volunteer firefighter, but responded as a helper. He was not believed to have been involved in any firefighting activity, according to the statement.
“Captain Harris’ response is typical of all our first responders; night and day, no matter where they are, no matter if they are on or off duty they respond with the greatest acts of bravery,” City Manager Mary Suhm said in a statement. “The City of Dallas and the citizens of Dallas have lost a real role model.”
The explosion devastated the area that officials described as a highly-populated neighborhood.
“It ranges from broken windows to complete devastation,” Waco Police Department Sgt. William Swanton said at a news conference Thursday. “There are homes that are no longer homes.”
At some buildings, “walls were ripped off, roofs were peeled back,” the sergeant said.
The fire and explosion Wednesday night in a small town north of Waco prompted widespread evacuations and sent more than 160 injured people to hospitals.
The blast at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas, occurred just before 8 p.m., but officials still were struggling to tally the dead and injured early Thursday morning, and searching door-to-door amid the rubble for survivors, police said.
Earlier Thursday, authorities expressed concerns about looting, but now say they believe what was initially reported to them was an isolated incident.
“I have confirmed at least there was an incident last night when they thought they may have had a looter,” Swanton said, adding that the incident occurred “very, very early in the scenario.”
He said there was no arrest and the problem is “not rampant,” but people are still being kept out of the main disaster area.
Swanton said the five to 15 deaths is a “rough number” and they are unverified.
“I don’t have a number of how many they have rescued or how many potential bodies they have found,” he said.
“There are still firefighters missing,” Swanton said.
He said an estimated three or four who are missing are volunteer firefighters, “meaning that they probably have a very large contingent of people that are willing to risk their lives for the neighbors and community.”
They are the first responders who were battling the fire when the explosion occurred, he said.
A firefighter and law enforcement officer who was previously mentioned as missing has been found, Swanton said. He is in a hospital with “pretty serious injuries,” he added.
Swanton said authorities are still in search-and-rescue mode and are not yet in recovery mode.
“The town is secure. There are plenty of law enforcement officials that are stationed around the town,” Swanton said. “There is no fire out of control. There is no chemical escape from the fertilizer plant that is out of control.”
The Red Cross, mental health agencies and grief counselors are on hand to help the community, in addition to the neighbors who are already assisting each other.
“That is a very tight-knit, very family-packed, family-oriented community,” Swanton said of the town of about 2,800 people. “They are leaning on each other’s shoulders.”
As they gained access to the explosion site, officials said they were treating it as a crime scene.
“We are not indicating that it is a crime, but we don’t know,” Swanton said. “What that means to us is that until we know that it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene. ATF [the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] is conducting the main investigation.”
President Obama, in a statement, extended his condolences to the people of West and thanked first responders.
“A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives,” he wrote.
“My administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search-and-rescue and response operations continue.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he has requested an emergency declaration from the president for West.
“Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community,” Perry said at a news conference Thursday. “Anyone who grew up…in a small town like West, they know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family, has touched practically everyone in that town.”
The disaster even drew condolences from Pope Francis, who tweeted, “Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.”
The fertilizer plant was fined $2,300 by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards, the EPA told ABC News in an email.
The plant was not penalized by the EPA again after that incident and has not had any major accidents in the last five years.
Another EPA report showed that West Fertilizer Co. reported the “worst possible scenario…would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jeff McAdam, KSTU Fox 13