The incident began with a fire. Some firefighters came to the scene to quell the blaze, and were there minutes later when the explosion happened at the West Fertilizer Co. at about 7:50 p.m. (8:50 p.m. ET).
"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," he said of the blast. "Big old mushroom cloud."
"(It's) massive -- just like Iraq. Just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City," said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department.
The blast stripped a nearby apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows. "It was just a skeleton standing up," Wilson said.
The blast sent a massive fireball into the sky. Flames leaped over the roof of a structure and a large plume of smoke rose high into the air.
"The windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came," said George Smith, the city EMS director.
"It, like, picked you up," a woman told CNN affiliate WFAA. "It just took your breath away. And then it dropped you and it exploded everything around you... It was like a suction and then it just blew it all out. You could feel everything. You could feel it on your skin, your hair was being blown. It was crazy."
She managed to cover one of her children, she said, and "grabbed my little one and dove through a door. It was chaos. All my windows blew out, my doors off the hinges. All I had were my keys in my hand and I just threw the dog, everybody in the car and we took off."
Brad Smith lives 50 miles away and felt his house shake.
"We didn't know exactly what it was," he said. "The forecast said a line of thunderstorms was going to come though. My wife and I looked up and wondered, 'Did it get here six hours early?'"
Five hours after the blast, carloads of the wounded continued to stream into hospitals.
While some of the injuries are minor, others were "quite serious," said Glenn Robinson, chief of Hillcrest Hospital in Waco.
Hillcrest reported five patients in intensive care -- two in critical condition, three in serious condition. At least 28 patients will be admitted, said hospital chief Glenn Robinson.
The storm system working its way through the area -- which includings ilghtning and hail -- could cause problems not only for firefighters, but also for those left homeless.
Overnight lows will be just above freezing, said CNN Meteorologist Jennifer Delgado.
And the danger may not be over.
Even though officials have turned off all the gas at the plant, they worry another tank at the facility might explode.
"What we are hearing is that there is one fertilizer tank that is still intact at the plant, and there are evacuations in place to make sure everyone gets away from the area safely in case of another explosion," said Ben Stratmann, a spokesman for Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell.
West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town's chamber of commerce touts it as "the Czech point of central Texas."
Czech immigrants arrived in the town in the 1880s, and the community still maintains strong ties to their central European roots, with businesses named "Little Czech Bakery" and "The Czech Inn."
Early Thursday morning, state troopers in gas masks manned roadblocks, waving away cars coming off the highway.
The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a flight restriction over the town.
Authorities closed schools for the rest of the week, and urged everyone to stay away from school property.