TEXAS - A deadly explosion and fire tore through a fertiliser plant in a small Texas town injuring more than 100 people.
The blast levelled dozens of homes and spewedtoxic fumes which forced evacuations.
They said an undetermined number of people had been killed, and that the death toll was expected to rise as search teams combed through the rubble of the West Fertilizer Co. plant and surrounding homes.
"We do have confirmed fatalities," Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson told a news conference early on Thursday, about four hours after the explosion.
"The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We're in there searching the area right now and making sure that it's safe."
Officials said flames that continued to smolder inside the plant posed two threats; the possibility of setting off an explosion of a second fertiliser tank and the emission of hazardous fumes into the surrounding community.
Wilson said about half the town, an area encompassing eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shift overnight as expected.
The blast, apparently preceded by a fire at the plant occurred in West, a town of some 2,700 people.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told Reuters that five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first on the scene in the blast zone were unaccounted for.
CNN reported that at least two people had been killed, but that figure could not be independently confirmed.
"It's a lot of devastation. I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
CAUSE A MYSTERY
Wilson said 50 to 75 homes were damaged by the explosion and a fire that followed, and that a nearby 50-unit apartment complex had been reduced to "a skeleton standing up." Muska put the number of destroyed homes at between 60 and 80.
Wilson said 133 people had been evacuated from a damaged nursing home, but it was not immediately clear how many residents of the facility were hurt.
He estimated that overall more than 100 people had been injured in the disaster.
There was no immediate official word on what sparked the explosion as emergency personnel assisted victims and doused the flames.
US Representative Bill Flores, whose district includes West, said he doubted any foul play was involved.
"I would not expect sabotage by any stretch of the imagination," he told CNN.