Five killed in huge blast at US plant (Third Lead)

Washington, April 18 (IANS) At least five people were killed and over 160 injured in a massive explosion at a Texas fertiliser factory that triggered an earthquake and flattened buildings, prompting a dazed official to say “it was like a nuclear bomb”.

Between five and 15 people were killed and more than 160 hurt in the fertiliser factory blast in the US state of Texas Wednesday, Xinhua quoted police as saying Thursday.

The deafening explosion happened around 7.50 p.m. at the fertiliser plant in West, a small town 320 km of Houston.

“There are a lot of people that got hurt,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska. “There are a lot of people that will not be here tomorrow.”

“It was a like a nuclear bomb went off…Big old mushroom cloud,” he added.

Muska said a fire broke out at the fertiliser plant before the explosion, which devastated surrounding areas, destroying 10 homes and damaging 50 more. It also triggered a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.

A fire burnt furiously at the plant, hours after the powerful explosion Wednesday night. Emergency services say they now have the blaze under control.

George Smith, head of the Texas Emergency Medical Services in West, had earlier said at least 60 were dead and some 170 injured, broadcaster KWTX reported.

Chrystal Anthony, a nearby resident, said she saw the flames engulf the nursing home and an apartment complex.

“It was an apartment complex that was devastated, the nursing home. The fire was close to a residential area,” Anthony was quoted as saying.

“It was like a bomb went off,” said Barry Murry, a resident who lives about a mile away from the plant. “There were emergency vehicles everywhere. It has been overwhelming.”

Rescuers launched a door-to-door search overnight in the area near the explosion, looking for dead or injured.

Toxic gas is feared to have been released into the air and authorities are worried that a second fertiliser tank may explode.

The cause of the explosion and the earlier fire in the plant is under investigation.

West is a small city of 2,600 residents. Half the town was evacuated after the explosion.

ABC News, citing Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Gail Scarborough, put the number of injured at 200; 40 of them are critical.

Besides the injuries, 75 to 100 houses and business were completely destroyed in and around the plant, Scarborough was quoted as saying.

CNN said residents are being evacuated because officials are worried that another tank at the facility might explode.

Shortly after the explosion, more than 60 patients streamed into Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, suffering from “blast injuries, orthopaedic injuries (and) a lot of lacerations”, said hospital CEO Glenn Robinson.

While some of the injuries are minor, others are “quite serious”, he said.

At least six helicopters are going to fly out those who are injured, Robinson said. Others are being transported by ambulance, and some are getting to the hospital by car, he added.

Two other hospitals in the region were also assisting.

The West Fertilizer Plant is just north of Waco. A school and a nursing home are among the buildings near the plant, CNN affiliate KWTX reported.

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