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Twisted metal, torn lives in blast-hit Texas town

Rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building in West, Texas, April 18, 2013
Search and rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building the day after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, April 18, 2013.

The deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant rippled through this quiet Texas town with the force of an earthquake, leaving behind shattered homes, mounds of debris and unanswered questions.

As rescuers near the epicenter of the blast searched for survivors, residents struggled to come to grips with the disaster, which flattened much of the tiny town of West, claiming up to 15 lives and leaving dozens homeless.

A huge chunk of twisted metal lay in a corn field, near crushed storage tanks and houses with peaked roofs sheared off by the blast, which had caused a massive fireball and generated tremors felt 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.

Texas factory explosion
Graphic map locating the West Fertilizer plant where a major explosion flattened houses and left many dead.

The explosion registered as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event. Witnesses who felt the blast compared it to an atomic bomb, while rescue workers who ventured closer to the scene compared the aftermath to a warzone.

Many of those who survived the disaster could only wonder at what was left of their homes, while others set to work rebuilding.

Pete Arias, 45, was grateful to still be alive after watching a wall of glass rush toward him as the massive explosion blew out the windows of his modest one-story house about 10 blocks away from the epicenter of the blast.

"The force that came in stripped the paint off the ceiling," he told AFP.

Amazingly, the glass shards spared him and his eight-year-old son, who was lying down on the couch and asked his father: "Was that an earthquake?"

After checking to see his wife was safe, Arias rushed outside to a scene of complete chaos.

Neighbors who had become like family in the six years since he moved to West were pouring out onto the street, covered in blood after being struck by debris and broken glass.

The fertilizer plant blast destroyed a school a block away April 18, 2013 in West, Texas
The fertilizer plant blast destroyed a school a block away April 18, 2013 in West, Texas.

"Everyone was screaming and hollering," he said. "I could see out of the corner of my eye just this huge mushroom cloud."

Arias worried about the people at the nursing home and the apartment complex up the road. There was also a park that was often full of children. His own son, Samuel, had been out playing with friends just 30 minutes earlier.

Two days after the double bombing at the Boston marathon, he wondered if terrorists had struck his quiet little town.

Then the sheriff's department gave evacuation orders -- there was another tank that could blow at any minute. Arias and his family grabbed a handful of whatever clothes were at hand and jumped in their car.

Officials have said between five and 15 people were killed in the explosion, and local hospitals have treated another 160 for injuries.

A police car drives through the blast area after an explosion at a fertilizer plant, April 18, 2013 in Texas
A law enforcement vehicle drives through the blast area after an explosion at a fertilizer plant on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas.

D. L. Wilson, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety who was among the first people on the scene, described the devastation as "massive. Just like Iraq."

The explosion took place Wednesday evening nearly an hour after a fire broke out at the plant, and could have been caused by the ignition of anhydrous ammonia, a pungent, colorless gas commonly used as fertilizer.

Officials have not ruled out foul play.

Arias said he was anxious to get back home to cover the windows and keep out the rain -- and he was sure his neighbors would lend a helping hand.

"These people, they'll pull together and rebuild," he said.

Signs of rebuilding were already under way less than 24 hours after tragedy struck.

Boards were being hammered on windows. Volunteers set up stations with food and drinks. Trucks of clothing, food and other items were being sorted at a disaster donation center set up in a church next to a community center.

"We'll be here as long as we need to to support this community," said Billy Floyd, 43, who drove down with a big smoker grill and boxes of chips, snacks and soda.

About 20 volunteers joined him, most from a Cargill plant in nearby Waco where many West residents work, as he got ready to start grilling a stack of 500 hamburger patties for the hungry survivors.