Searchers find 12 bodies from Texas blast as hunt continues

Search crews recovered the bodies of 12 people killed in a Texas fertilizer-mill explosion that injured 200 and devastated the small town of West in the worst U.S. industrial disaster in at least three years.

About 25 homes near the site of the April 17 blast at Adair Grain Inc.’s warehouse have yet to be searched, Sgt. Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said during a media briefing Friday. The identities of the deceased weren’t released.

Sixty people remain unaccounted for, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said at a separate briefing Friday. West Mayor Tommy Muska said Thursday there were 35 missing, including five volunteer firefighters, four emergency medical personnel, an off-duty Dallas firefighter and two local people who helped at the scene of the fire at Adair Grain that preceded the blast.

The facility had a stockpile of ammonium nitrate, a nitrogen fertilizer so volatile that it has been used by terrorists to build truck bombs. Cornyn said he’s “confident” the blast will lead to a review of the government’s chemical plant safety rules.

“We have to start all over, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Joann Williams, 70, who was evacuated from her house.

The explosion, which rocked the town of 2,800 residents with the force of a small earthquake, destroyed about 50 homes, three of the town’s fire trucks and an emergency medical services vehicle, Reyes said. Authorities didn’t say where they had found the bodies.

The death toll is the highest for a U.S industrial catastrophe since April 2010, when 29 coal miners perished in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Waco Police Sergeant William Patrick Stanton said Thursday that as the search of the ruins progresses, the number of dead may rise. Waco is 20 miles south of West and is the seat of McLennan County.

Firefighters in West were already battling a blaze at the plant, and had begun evacuating nearby residents, when it exploded about 7:53 p.m. local time. A nursing home, hospital and two schools are situated within a mile of the facility on the northeast edge of town.

Ammonium nitrate was responsible for some of the deadliest industrial accidents in the last century, including a 1947 explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed more than 570, said John Verkade, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

There were no indications that the fire or explosion was triggered intentionally, Swanton said Thursday, when teams of urban search-and-rescue experts known as Texas Task Forces 1 and 2 arrived on the scene Thursday. A contingent of forensic chemists and explosive specialists from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also was deployed.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which looks into industrial chemical accidents, said on its website Thursday that a “large investigation team” had been sent to West.

A 2011 inspection of the plant by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration revealed violations of material-handling rules, according to an agency document. The inspector said the company planned to ship anhydrous ammonia in unauthorized cargo tanks, and had failed to develop a security plan for the transportation.

The agency initially proposed a fine of $10,100. It was reduced to $5,250 last year, which the company paid. The agency said in its final order in the matter that the company had addressed the violations and “no further corrective actions are required.”

The Environmental Protection Agency inspected the West plant’s risk management plan in March 2006 and found deficiencies. The EPA fined the facility $2,300 in August of that year and directed Adair Grain to correct the shortcomings, Alisha Johnson, an agency spokeswoman, said by email.