Law Enforcement: 12 Bodies Recovered After Texas Explosion

Credit: CBS

An explosion registering the size of a small earthquake devastated a small Texas community, leveling streets and injuring hundreds.

Law enforcement confirmed to the Associated Press Friday that 12 bodies have been recovered.

"Part of our community is gone," an official said Thursday, confirming that a significant area around the West Fertilizer Company plant was leveled after a powerful blast at the plant. The landscape was described as resembling a war zone, with local military veterans likening the sound of the blast to that of a bomb.

It's still unknown what caused the explosion, which happened jut before 8 p.m. CST. Authorities are treating the plant and area around it as a crime scene until it's confirmed that it was an industrial accident.

Images from the scene in the town of West Wednesday night show an enormous cloud of smoke ballooning over the community after the explosion. Witnesses reported seeing a 100-foot wide fireball shoot into the air, then flames rapidly spreading to nearby buildings.

At least 15 people are believed to be dead, and authorities fear that number will grow after rescue and recovery efforts are completed. Authorities did say Thursday that they still consider efforts to be "search and rescue" at this time, meaning that they are still hopeful that those trapped in toppled homes are still alive.

Officials said rescue workers went door-to-door through the night, and do not know how many may have been rescued overnight, or how many could still be trapped.

More than 160 people are injured, primarily from flying debris. Some hospitals are reporting patients suffering burn injuries.

Firefighters were already at the plant battling an earlier fire when the explosion occurred. Firefighters are believed to be among the dead, and three to four are still missing. All the firefighters are volunteers.

People in communities more than 30 miles away reported feeling the blast, which registered at a magnitude 2.1. Local authorities compared the strength of the explosion to the Oklahoma City bombing, which registered at a 3.0 magnitude.

One West resident told CBS Dallas that the explosion threw her son four feet into the air, breaking his ribs.

“The fire was so high,” Julie Zahirniako said. “It was just as loud as it could be. The ground and everything was shaking.”

Zahirniako said the force of the blast blew the roof off a nearby school.

Waco-based lawyer Skip Reaves, who lives less than a mile from the plant, told KWTX the blast blew out all the windows and doors at homes in his neighborhood.

The plant has been cited in the past for failure to obtain or qualify for permit after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was forced to investigate complaints from a resident about a strong ammonia smell in 2006.

TCEQ is in West monitoring conditions in the area Thursday. Officials said in Thursday's news conference that the storms in the area are keeping the chemicals "out of the environment."

President Obama reached out to the mayor of West by phone, and said in a statement that his administration was working "to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue operations continue."

We're working to learn more about the explosion. Update this page for new details.

Map of the area impacted by blast. (Credit: CBS)