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Apr 18, 2013 1:32 PM by AP

Up to 15 feared dead in Texas explosion; some still missing

WEST, TEXAS (AP) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry is calling the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in his state "a truly nightmare scenario."

Rescue workers searched the smoldering ruins of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas today for survivors of a monstrous explosion that leveled homes and businesses in every direction across the Texas prairie. As many as 15 people were feared dead and more than 160 others injured.

Daybreak revealed a breathtaking band of destruction extending from the West Fertilizer Co. in this small farming community about 20 miles north of Waco. The thunderous blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and could be heard dozens of miles away.

Searchers "have not gotten to the point of no return where they don't think that there's anybody still alive," Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said. He did not know how many people had been rescued.

There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a yawning crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he said.

The explosion rained burning embers and debris down on terrified residents. It leveled a four-block area around the plant, badly damaging or destroying up to 75 houses, a 50-unit apartment complex, a middle school and a nursing home.

Morning revealed a landscape wrapped in acrid smoke and strewn with the shattered remains of buildings, furniture and personal belongings. The force of the explosion sheared away the entire front of the apartment complex, leaving behind twisted beams, shattered windows and great heaps of broken wood. Cars were battered as if a tornado had spun through town.

Firm information was difficult to come by in the hours after the blast, and entry into the town was slow-going as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles. Authorities themselves had trouble entering the heart of the blast zone.

"It's still too hot to get in there," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Thursday morning.

Among those believed to be dead were three to five volunteer firefighters. The many injuries included broken bones, cut and bruises, respiratory problems and minor burns. Five people were reported in intensive care.

Authorities said the plant made materials similar to those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The fertilizer used in that attack, ammonium nitrate, makes big explosions, be they accidental or intentional said Neil Donahue, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. It also was used in the first bombing attempt at the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ammonium nitrate is stable, but if its components are heated up sufficiently, they break apart in a runaway explosive chemical reaction, said Donahue.

West Mayor Tommy Muska told reporters that his city of about 2,800 people needs "your prayers."

"We've got a lot of people who are hurt, and there's a lot of people, I'm sure, who aren't going to be here tomorrow," Muska said. "We're going to search for everybody. We're going make sure everybody's accounted for."

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