Texas - A fiery explosion ripped through a fertiliser plant near Waco, Texas, on Wednesday night and damaged or destroyed numerous buildings including a school and nursing home, and hundreds of people were likely injured in the blast, authorities said.
CNN reported two fatalities, but that could not be immediately confirmed.
The blast, apparently preceded by a fire at the plant, was reported at about 8pm in West, a town of some 2,700 people about 130km south of Dallas and 32km north of Waco.
“It's a lot of devastation. I've never seen anything like this,” said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. “It looks like a war zone with all the debris.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, D.L. Wilson, told Reuters the blast had probably caused “hundreds of casualties” and damaged many homes but had no word on fatalities. He added that a nearby nursing home had collapsed from the explosion and that people were believed trapped inside.
McNamara said the nursing home and much of the center of town had been evacuated, and that residences near the explosion had been levelled.
There was no immediate official word on what sparked the explosion as emergency personnel assisted victims and doused the flames. US Representative Bill Flores, whose district includes West, said he doubted any foul play was involved.
“I would not expect sabotage by any stretch of the imagination,” he told CNN.
A Texas public safety dispatcher in Waco told Reuters that an initial explosion was followed by two smaller blasts, all of which erupted after a fire at the plant.
He said there was concern that a “second silo” at the plant could explode and that authorities were scrambling to evacuate the area around the facility.
Mayor Tommy Muska said in an interview on CNN that 60 to 80 homes around the plant were flattened.
The air in town remained thick with smoke more than two hours after the explosion, and the area around the blast site was littered with shards of wood, bricks and glass.
A Reuters reporter observed that a nearby middle school and several homes were severely burned. Dallas television station WFAA reported from helicopters that roughly a three-block area of West appeared to have been destroyed.
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco reported treating 66 patients, including children, for injuries including lacerations, burns and broken bones.
“We are seeing a lot of lacerations and orthopedic-type injuries ... things you would expect in an explosion,” said David Argueta, vice president of hospital operations.
“We are being told that we have seen most of the patients, and it's now turned into a search-and-rescue operation on scene,” he added.
He said nine people suffering burns had been transferred to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
Governor Rick Perry issued a statement saying his office had “mobilized state resources to help local authorities” deal with the incident.
A White House official said the Obama administration was aware of the situation and monitoring local and state response through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The explosion came two days before the 20th anniversary of a fire in Waco that engulfed a compound inhabited by David Koresh and his followers in the Branch Davidian sect, ending a siege by federal agents.
Some 82 members of the sect and four federal agents died at Waco.
Jason Shelton, 33, a father of two who lives less than a mile (1.6 km) from the plant, said he heard fire trucks heading toward the facility five minutes before the explosion.
He said he felt the concussion from the blast as he stood on his front porch.
“My windows started rattling and my kids screaming,” Shelton told Reuters. The screen door hit me in the forehead ... and all the screens blew off my windows.” - Reuters