Washington: A massive blast at a fertiliser plant in central Texas Wednesday night killed 15 people, wounded more than 160, and damaged 50 to 60 homes, officials said Thursday.
The casualty count in the explosion in the small town of West, about 75 miles (120 km) south of Dallas, with a population of just 2,800, could spike to 60 or 70, CNN reported citing George Smith, the city's emergency management system director.
The explosion rocked the West Fertilizer Co. at about 7.50 p.m. local time. It's being treated as a crime scene until investigators determine whether it was an accident.
"Nothing at this point indicates we have had criminal activity, but we are not ruling that out," Sergeant William Patrick Swanton of the nearby Waco Police Department was quoted as saying.
Swanton estimated the death toll as high as 15.
The blast shook houses 50 miles away and measured as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the US Geological Survey.
It sent a massive fireball into the sky, CNN said. Flames leaped over the roof of a structure and a large plume of smoke rose high into the air.
"The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came," Smith said.
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."
About half the community of 2,800 was evacuated, Mayor Tommy Muska said. "It was like a nuclear bomb went off," he said. "Big old mushroom cloud."
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.
The White House said it is monitoring the situation through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is in touch with state and local authorities.
Five hours after the blast, carloads of the wounded continued to stream into hospitals, CNN said.
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.
Early Thursday morning, state troopers in gas masks manned roadblocks, waving away cars coming off the highway.
The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.
Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week, and urged everyone to stay away from school property.