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Up to 15 killed, more than 160 hurt in Texas fertilizer plant explosion: police

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A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. AP/Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News

Rescue workers searched the wreckage of a fertilizer plant on Thursday for survivors of a fiery explosion that killed as many as 15 people, injured more than 160 and leveled houses in a small Texas city.

Three to four volunteer firefighters were among the missing following the explosion on Wednesday night, said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the Waco, Texas, police department.

Firefighters had responded to a fire at the West Fertilizer Co before the 8 p.m. blast that rocked West, a town of 2,700 people about 20 miles north of Waco.

“I am declaring McLennan County a disaster,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said Thursday afternoon. “We’re requesting an emergency declaration from the president.”

Authorities said they are treating the explosion as a crime scene, but implied that the result of the investigation may not be criminal — but an industrial accident.

“It is routine for us to call them crime scene investigations in this kind of incident.  There is no indication of crime at this point from what I’m made aware of.  That is what we will investigate, ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), the state fire marshal will investigate, the state fire marshall will investigate to determine if in fact there was some type of crime there.

We are not saying there is but we are not saying there is not because we are way to early in the investigation to speculate on causes or what may of actually occurred,” Swanton said.

Swanton added that they are still in search-and-rescue mode and had not yet moved to recovery mode.  He warned the process is slow and tedious.

A law enforcement official was found alive but in critical condition in a local hospital, Swanton said.

President Barack Obama, who flew to Boston for a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, offered support and prayers to the victims in Texas.

Light rain was falling and winds had picked up Thursday morning, conditions that could complicate the recovery effort or prompt additional evacuations but may also be helping the air quality of the site.

“They’re still giving everybody the green light on the  environment,” Swanton said.  “There is no lingering threat, I think again the weather has kind of helped us with that, it has obviously dispersed some of the smoke. At this point I’ve been told that is not a concern.”

Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco admitted 28 of more than 100 people it treated, with five in the intensive care unit, said David Argueta, vice president of operations.

The explosion came two days before the 20th anniversary of a fire in nearby Waco that engulfed a compound inhabited by David Koresh and his followers in the Branch Davidian sect, ending a siege by federal agents.

About 82 members of the sect and four federal agents died at Waco.

Ground motion from the blast, triggered by a fire of unknown origin at the plant, registered as a magnitude 2.1 seismic tremor and created a jolt felt 125 kilometres away in Dallas, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.