WEST, Texas — Searchers have found 12 bodies at the scene of a powerful blast at a fertilizer plant that leveled several residential blocks in the small Central Texas town of West, officials said Friday.
Twenty-five houses near the demolished plant still needed to be searched as of Friday morning, said Sgt. Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said at a noon briefing that as many as 60 people remained unaccounted for, although he clarified that the number likely included people who simply haven’t connected with relatives.
“There are people in hospitals who might be some of the unaccounted for,” he said. “There are people staying with friends in homes. So that number should come down.”
McLennan County Commissioner Ben Perry told the Waco Tribune-Herald that the number is expected to drop dramatically.
Two hundred people were injured in the powerful blast just before 8 p.m. Wednesday. The recovered bodies were sent to a Dallas forensics lab for identification. Officials said 150 buildings had been cleared and 50 houses have been destroyed. Reyes said three fire rescue trucks and one EMS vehicle were destroyed.
The dead were found “in the area” of the demolished plant, Reyes said.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has identified 11 emergency responders — mostly volunteer firefighters — who are presumed dead.
Investigators still had no information on what sparked the fire, which drew several volunteer firefighters who were at the site when the plant exploded some 25 minutes later.
Also Friday, a U.S. Army reservist said some units have been scheduled to deploy to the blast area. It wasn’t clear Friday afternoon if their role would be to help with search and rescue, maintain order or help in other ways.
Searchers were continuing to look for victims as the sun rose Friday over the town of 2,800 just north of Waco.
“I think it is only appropriate we recognize (the search and rescue teams) for their professionalism and heroism as they try to bring closure to these families,” Reyes said.
Cornyn provided the most specific information about the number of dead and wounded since the blast occurred Wednesday. Texas’ senior senator said he was provided the figure when he was “briefed on it this morning by the authorities” investigating the tragedy.
But after his remarks during a noon news conference at the West Auction Barn, Cornyn explained that many of the missing are likely either in hospitals or staying with friends, and simply haven’t reconnected with their next of kin.
Cornyn appeared briefly with fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin. The Republican trio deflected questions about what they’ve been told about the possible cause of the blast, and whether anything could have been done at the federal or state level to prevent homes and schools from being built so close to a fertilizer plant.
“This is an agricultural community and ammonium nitrate is an important fertilizer,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn initially said the fire caused Wednesday’s explosion, but when asked if investigators had confirmed that he declined to elaborate. Williams then interjected that those questions should be directed to local officials.
Cruz said Texans and others concerned about the obvious potential dangers of fertilizer need to be patient.
“I think we need to allow time for a careful investigation,” Cruz said. “All of us out here want to know what happened here. I think it would be a mistake to rush to a conclusion before the facts are established.”
Williams said the blast investigation was being professionally handled by local, state and federal officials.
“We need to let this process work,” he said.
Some units of the U.S. Army Reserve have been scheduled to deploy to the scene of the plant explosion in West, Private first class Jacob Brown said.
Brown’s unit was not scheduled but he responded to a call for volunteers. If the scheduled units are sent to West, Brown said they will be helping in a variety of ways.
“They do whatever they can,” Brown said.
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