Authorities searched through mounds of rubble Thursday in hopes of finding survivors of the huge, deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant that flattened much of a small Texas town.
The blast, which residents described as "massive" and "overwhelming," left shattered homes and wreckage in a wide swath of West, Texas, a town of only 2,800 people.
"It's overwhelming to us," said George Smith, the town's director of emergency services. As he spoke to CNN affiliate KCEN, blood was spattered on his face from injuries he suffered.
"It was like a nuclear bomb went off," said Mayor Tommy Muska.
On Wednesday evening, a fire at the plant suddenly exploded with a huge, deafening bang, throwing people to the ground blocks away. It measured as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the United States Geological Survey. Even 50 miles away, homes shook.
The blast came minutes after the fire began, so firefighters were already on the scene. Some may be among the dead, but the casualty count is unclear, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton said, estimating that overall, five to 15 people may have lost their lives. Smith said the death toll could spike to 60 or 70. More than 160 people were injured.
"We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead," Smith said.
About half the town was evacuated, including a nursing home with 133 residents. A middle school is also near the plant.
'Roof came in on me'
The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air, followed by a plume of smoke bigger than the plant itself. A deafening boom echoed for miles.
It was "massive -- just like Iraq, just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City," said D.L. Wilson of the Texas public safety department, referring to a bombing that took place 18 years ago Friday.
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 windows came in on me, the roof came in on me, the ceiling came," Smith said.
The town, he said, has only three ambulances.
Between 50 and 60 homes in a five-block area sustained damage, officials said.
"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."
Video taken by college student Eric Perez -- from what appeared to be a safe distance away from the fire, past a large field -- shows the moment of the blast. In a split second, the fire over the plant bursts into into widespread destruction, knocking Perez over. Bright flames fill the sky.
Perez and his friends were playing basketball when they noticed the flames at the plant. "Nothing ever happens in our small town, so I recorded," he said. "Then the explosion went off. We were thrown into the bed of my truck."
One of his friends suffered a flash burn to his face and broken ribs. Another was burned on his arm and hit with flying shrapnel. A third had a cut to his face.
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 through. My wife and I looked up and wondered, 'Did it get here six hours early?' "