A fertilizer mixing and storage facility exploded in rural Texas on Wednesday evening, killing at least five people, injuring more than 160 others, destroying homes, and filling the air with noxious fumes.

burning fertilizer plant
Reuters / Mike Stone

As many as 15 are feared dead, including five firefighters who responded to the fire that preceded the extraordinary blast at the facility in the small town of West, near Waco.

From The New York Times:

Homes and businesses were leveled in the normally quiet town of West, and there was widespread destruction in the downtown area, Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said Thursday morning.

“At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue,” he said.

Five to 15 people were killed and more than 160 people were being treated at area hospitals, Sergeant Swanton said, while also emphasizing that those early estimates could change. As many as five firefighters are still missing, he said.

There is no evidence indicating criminal activity, Sergeant Swanton said, “but we’re not ruling that out.”

It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”

Agricultural fertilizer is a big business — and it’s a notoriously dangerous business, involving vast volumes of ammonium nitrate.

From The Guardian:

One of the most common ingredients found in fertilizer is ammonia — made out of nitrogen and hydrogen — which is created by sending natural gas, steam and air into a large container. The nitrogen and hydrogen is isolated before an electric current is sent through to turn it into ammonium, which in this case was mixed with nitric acid to create the potentially explosive ammonium nitrate. This and all the other components of fertilizer have to then be whittled down and then mixed together before the final product is created.

Ammonium Nitrate is a strong oxidant — and is highly flammable in its raw state.

From Newstalk 1010:

The plant uses ammonium nitrate in fertilizer production, the same chemical used in 1995’s Oklahoma City Bombing. 2 tons of ammonium nitrate were used in Oklahoma City to set off a blast that killed 168 people & hurt hundreds. The West Fertilizer plant may have had as much as 100 tons of the chemical on hand.

From Slate:

The West blast comes one day after the 66th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history: the Texas City disaster of 1947, a fertilizer explosion that killed more than 580 people when a French-flagged vessel hauling ammonium nitrate caught fire, resulting in a chain reaction of fires and explosions that destroyed much of the port city.

UPDATE: The Dallas Morning News takes a look at the plant’s record:

Texas regulators knew in 2006 that the fertilizer facility that burned and exploded Wednesday night had two 12,000-gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia and was near a school and neighborhood, documents show.

However, West Fertilizer Co., of West, Texas, told Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit reviewers that emissions from the tanks would not pose a danger.

That assertion was based on expected routine emissions, not the possibility of a catastrophic failure.

The AP raises more concerns:

The Texas fertilizer plant … was cited for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit in 2006.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint June 9 of a strong ammonia smell. Agency records show that the person who lodged the complaint said the ammonia smell was “very bad last night” and lingered until after he or she went to bed.

And from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog: “The Texas fertilizer industry has only seen six inspections in the past five years — and the West Texas Fertilizer Co. plant was not one of them.”

Watch an absolutely chilling video of the West fertilizer explosion here, about 30 seconds in. Be warned that it includes audio of a terrified girl in pain after the blast: