WEST, Texas -- A powerful explosion rocked the town of West, Texas, 19 miles north of Waco, on Wednesday evening.
"We've heard that figure of 60 to 70 dead that's coming from the county's emergency management office down here," said WFAA reporter Todd Unger a short distance from the blast epicenter. "I can tell you that a couple of law enforcement soucres expect that number to go up."
The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed there were multiple injuries. No reliable numbers were available, but that figure is expected to be in the hundreds.
The town's mayor said at 11 p.m. that most of the fires resulting from the explosion were contained.
"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," said one man who was looking for a lost relative on Willie Nelson Road.
A large swath of the small town with a population of 2,800 was damaged. Fearing additional explosions, officials ordered residents to evacuate.
The blast around 8 p.m. was at the West Fertilizer plant at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive, about a half-mile east of Interstate 35.
Shortly before 10 p.m., a dispatcher was advising emergency crews to move away from the burning plant due to concern about chemicals in unexploded tanks.
A few minutes later, WFAA's Todd Unger reported hearing more explosions north of the plant.
A triage center that was set up at the West High School football field was evacuated because of its proximity to the burning plant. The processing center was moved to the town's community center.
An information hotline was set up for concerned friends and relatives at 254-202-1100. The line was overwhelmed with calls; if you get a busy signal, keep trying.
"There was a huge shock wave," said Mark Licknovsky who works at the Czech Stop, less than one mile away on Interstate 35. "That's when we knew something was serious."
West Town Council member Cheryl Marak told WFAA the blast killed her pets and confirmed heavy damage at the middle school.
Every house within four blocks of the facility was heavily damaged, according to initial reports.
"I can see heavy smoke here; there are emergency crews everywhere," said WFAA Todd Unger as he arrived in the devastated town. "We're looking at a home and it is a total loss. There are flames shooting up 10-15 feet."
An emergency dispatcher appealed for more more help. "I need anybody and everybody," she said.
At least 10 structures were on fire in the town, including a school which is next door to the plant.
Rescue vehicles from North Texas agencies were racing to the scene on I-35.
Schools in West will be closed on Thursday and Friday.
The American Red Cross said teams from Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin will be coordinating with emergency officials in West to provide any needed assistance to town residents who will need help. The Red Cross was attempting to identify a location to set up a shelter for evacuees.
Gov. Rick Perry issued this statement on Wednesday night:
“We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”
A shock wave from the explosion may have been felt in parts of North Texas and mistaken for an earthquake.
"I live in Groesbeck," wrote Rayne Sibley on WFAA's Facebook page. "I heard a large boom and my house shook."
Facebook users in Venus, Grandview, Cleburne, Ennis and Ferris also reported feeling the shock wave.
"Shook my doors!" wrote Nancy Procaccini of Combine. "Thought it was earthquake!"
Traffic on I-35 was backed up for miles. Motorists are advised to use alternate routes to make room for emergency traffic.