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UPDATE: Texas Fertilizer Blast Leaves at Least One Dead, 35 Missing

April 19, 2013
West Texas

Six firefighters, four emergency medical personnel and two locals who stopped to help are among the missing.

One person was confirmed killed and another 35 people were missing after an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that injured 160, flattened houses and devastated the center of the town of West.

The missing included five volunteer firefighters, four emergency medical personnel, an off-duty Dallas firefighter and two local people who stopped to help at the scene of a fire April 17 at Adair Grain Inc.’s fertilizer plant, West Mayor Tommy Muska said in an interview. Other officials previously estimated five to 15 fatalities.

Watch an "AgDay" report on the explosion:

Search-and-rescue crews that had combed the ruins of the World Trade Center after the 2001 attacks were dispatched to the scene, about 80 miles south of Dallas, said Waco Police Sergeant William Patrick Swanton at a news briefing yesterday.

"A lot of lives have been lost and some of them are firefighters," Lisa Muska, the mayor’s wife, said in an interview. "We all know each other and care about each other deeply."

The potential death toll could make the Texas explosion the worst U.S industrial catastrophe since April 2010, when 29 coal miners perished in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. With the demolished fertilizer facility and some of the surrounding rubble yet to be fully searched yesterday, Swanton said the number of dead might climb.

Explosive Fertilizer

Adair Grain’s West Fertilizer Co. handled anhydrous ammonia, a volatile combination of nitrogen and hydrogen that North American farmers inject in liquid form into the soil as a crop nutrient. Adair stored as much as 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms) of the chemical, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

State environmental records showed that as of Dec. 31, the plant also held in storage as much as 270 tons (245,000 kilograms) of an ammonia derivative known as ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer. The same chemical was used by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to destroy Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and kill 168 people. It was also used in the Irish Republican Army’s 1996 Canary Wharf attack in London.

Ammonium nitrate was responsible for some of the deadliest industrial accidents in the last century, including a 1947 explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed more than 570, said John Verkade, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

In Cinders

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