West - An estimated five to 15 people were killed in an explosion and fire that tore through a fertiliser plant and leveled dozens of homes in a small Texas town late on Wednesday, police said on Thursday.
Authorities in the town of West, north of Waco, said at least 160 survivors have been treated for injuries at area hospitals, and the blast site was being treated as a crime scene, though they have no immediate evidence of foul play.
"I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
The cause of the fire was unknown, officials said. Waco police Sergeant W Patrick Swanton said investigators would examine whether the blaze originated from "criminal activity or whether it ... got sparked from some type of chemical reaction".
Earlier, West Mayor Tommy Muska said five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first on the scene were missing.
Firefighters had been battling the fire and evacuating nearby residences and a nursing home for about 50 minutes before the blast occurred.
Officials said flames that continued to smoulder inside the plant posed two threats - the possibility of setting off further explosions and the emission of hazardous fumes into the town.
Swanton said a residual fire burning underneath additional chemical tanks had been brought under control "and I don't think that is any longer a threat".
Texas Public Safety Department spokesperson DL Wilson said about half the town, about eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shifted.