Texas Mayor Says 35 to 40 People Unaccounted for After Plant Blast

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The Red Cross, mental health agencies and grief counselors were on hand to help the community, in addition to the neighbors who were already assisting each other.

"That is a very tight-knit, very family packed, family-oriented community," Swanton said of the town of about 2,800 people. "They are leaning on each others' shoulders."

This evening, the singer Willie Nelson, who grew up nearby, released a statement that testified to the nature of the region.

"West is just a few miles from my hometown of Abbott," Nelson said. "I was born and raised here and it was my backyard growing up. This is my community. These friends and neighbors have always been and are still a part of my life. My heart is praying for the community that we call home."

President Obama, in a statement, extended his condolences to the people of West and thanked first responders.

"A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives," he wrote.

"My administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he has requested an emergency declaration from the president for West.

"Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community," Perry said at a news conference today. "Anyone who grew up ... in a small town like West, they know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family, has touched practically everyone in that town."

The disaster even drew condolences from Pope Francis, who tweeted, "Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families."

Earlier concerns about the possibility of dangerous ammonia fumes and shifting winds subsided by morning as fires died down, Swanton said before 6 a.m. ET.

So, too, did fears of looting. Though authorities expressed concerns about it earlier today, they later said a case initially reported to them was an isolated incident.

"I have confirmed at least there was an incident last night when they thought they may have had a looter," Swanton said, adding that the incident occurred "very, very early in the scenario."

He said there was no arrest and the problem is "not rampant," but people are still being kept out of the main disaster area.

FULL COVERAGE: West, Texas Plant Explosion

Nevertheless, numerous other concerns remained.

Witnesses reported heavy fire or concussive damage to a middle school, homes and the apartment complex near the plant, as well as to a nursing home, where more than 130 residents were evacuated, Mayor Muska said.

Buildings in a radius of about five blocks around the plant -- including at least 60 more homes -- were heavily damaged by the blast, officials said.

"It was almost tornadic in effect," Swanton said. "It looked like to me one home would be fine and next to it there would be extreme devastation."

The blast even registered as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was felt 20 to 30 miles away, witnesses said, and near the plant it burned buildings, knocked down people, blew out windows and, according to Wilson, left the damaged apartment complex looking like "just a skeleton standing up."

"It's total chaos," West City Councilwoman Cheryl Marak said soon after the blast, according to ABC News Radio. "There's ambulances and fire trucks and police cars from everywhere."

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