Texas Explosion Casts Pall Over Waco

Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News/AP Photo

The site of a fiery explosion burning into the sky above a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, was startlingly familiar to some residents of McLennan County.

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, a raid on a cult compound in the adjacent city of Waco ended in a massive fire pluming into the sky and the death of 86 people.

Waco and West are just 20 miles apart.

PHOTOS: Explosion Rips Through Texas

On April 19, 1993, federal agents stormed the compound on a hill called Mount Carmel, looking for illegal weapons they believed were held by a religious group that called itself the Branch Davidians.

They had initially tried to gain access to the cult's headquarters 51 days earlier, but were rebuffed when the members opened fire on officers. On April 19, FBI agents and officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went to the compound again.

Greg Smith/CORBIS

Members of the group, which were a break-off sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, then set fires in the compound. They had been in Waco awaiting the second coming of Christ.

PHOTOS: ATF Raid on Waco Branch Davidians 20th Anniversary

The scene in West, Texas, today is very different, with rescue workers trying to comb through the wreckage of a fertilizer plant that exploded and caught fire Wednesday. Authorities are still searching for survivors and missing people amid buildings that have been torn open or flattened.

Officials said they fear five to 15 people could be dead, although the mayor said today that as many as 40 people are unaccounted for.

"It ranges from broken windows to complete devastation," Waco Police Department Sgt. William Swanton said at a news conference today. "There are homes that are no longer homes."

At some buildings, "walls were ripped off, roofs were peeled back," the sergeant said.

The fire and explosion prompted widespread evacuations and sent more than 160 injured people to hospitals.