By M. Alex Johnson and Becky Bratu
NBC News: A large fertilizer plant explosion rocked a small Texas town Wednesday night, injuring “hundreds” of people and leaving dozens of homes destroyed.
It is the “most devastating thing that’s happened to this community,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said at an news conference, late Wednesday.
“We need your prayers,” Muska said. “There’s a lot of people that are hurt. And there’s a lot of people that I’m sure are not going to be here tomorrow.”
Multiple officials confirmed that there were fatalities in the explosion but wouldn’t give any early numbers.
Muska said the fertilizer plant was already fully engulfed in flames between 6:30 and 7 p.m. local time (7:30 – 8 p.m. Eastern), when the explosion occurred.
Muska, who is also a firefighter, was on his way toward the inferno at the time of the blast but was still a few blocks away.
“It blew my hat off, and then I heard it. I felt it before I heard it,” Muska said. “It was a very powerful explosion.”
He said the blast destroyed houses in a five- to six-block radius in the town 20 miles north of Waco.
“I went by my house and it’s pretty much a mess,” said Muska, adding that the door and windows had been blown out.
Muska didn’t give any exact numbers on how many people might have been killed, but noted, “there’s a lot of people that I’m sure are not going to be here tomorrow … it is a cut across our hearts.”
The Waco Department of Public Safety told NBC 5 of Dallas that many of the injuries were severe in the blast.
NBC 5 reported that some 200 people were injured in the explosion, with 40 of those in critical condition at various hospitals.
Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, of the Waco Police Department, told NBC News early Thursday that “at this point we do not have confirmed numbers. I can tell you there are hundreds of of individuals that have been injured.” He said approximately 50-75 homes in the area have been damaged.
Officials said they would be doing house by house searches all night for further victims.
There are only about 2,700 residents in West.
“It’s a lot of devastation. I’ve never seen anything like this,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara told Reuters. “It looks like a war zone with all the debris.”
Hazmat teams were on the scene as traces of anhydrous ammonia were still present in the air, Muska said, adding that search-and-rescue teams were going door to door looking for survivors.
“We’re going to make sure everyone’s accounted for,” Muska said.
Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco told NBC News that 66 patients have been treated at their trauma center. Those with lesser injuries had been discharged, while others had gone into surgery. The hospital said 38 patients are considered “seriously injured.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, D.L. Wilson, also said the blast had probably caused “hundreds of casualties” and damaged many homes.
He added that a nearby nursing home collapsed from the explosion and that people were believed trapped inside. Wilson said 133 people were inside the nursing home. He said the building had been evacuated but was unclear how many residents sustained injuries.
NBC 5 quoted witnesses as saying a nearby funeral home and an apartment complex also sustained serious damage. Interstate 35 was closed in McLennan County.
NBC station KCEN of Waco reported that many of the injured were being treated at a nearby community center. As many as a dozen helicopters were seen landing at a staging area at West High School.
A triage area had been established near the scene, but it was moved a short distance away for fear that smoke from the fire might be toxic.
The blast was felt as far as 15 miles away.
“My husband and l were cleaning up the kitchen after supper, and heard what we thought was someone running into our house,” Tonya Harris of Groesbeck, several miles southeast of West, told KWTX by email.
“It shook our windows and doors. We immediately ran outside looking for the worst,” she said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement that state resources were being made available to local authorities.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene,” he said.
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.
Reuters contributed to this story