The blast at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, comes nearly two decades to the day that heavily armed FBI and ATF agents moved in to end a 50-day siege at the compound of a religious cult.
Now known as the Waco massacre, 82 members of the Branch Davidian sect — men, women and children — and four federal agents lost their lives after officials set fire to the cult's isolated compound on a hilltop outside Waco.
The sect — a breakaway from the Seventh Day Adventist Church led by David Koresh — had renamed the hilltop Mount Carmel after a mountain in Israel mentioned in the Bible's Old Testament.
They settled in ramshackle dwellings to await the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The fertilizer plant, meantime, was located in West, a town of some 2,700 people about 80 miles south of Dallas and 20 miles north of Waco.
TV station KWTX news reported that 60 or 70 people had been killed and hundreds injured by the explosion.
The report could not be immediately verified, but KWTX cited West EMS director George Smith as confirming the death toll.
Reuters quoted McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara as describing the scene:
"It’s a lot of devastation. I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
West was littered with debris while the town remained shrouded in smoke more than two hours after the explosion, Reuters reported.
The 1993 Waco massacre was the end result of a 50-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound.
The federal authorities first decided to move on the group in February of that year, after reports emerged of child abuse within the compound and claims that Koresh was stockpiling illegal weapons and ammunition, as well as operating a meth lab.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the compound Feb. 28, using cattle trucks as cover.
Koresh and his followers fired on the trucks, killing four ATF agents, with five Branch Davidians also dead before a cease-fire was called.
That lasted until the morning of April 19, when agents moved in again, despite Koresh having released 35 people, including 14 children, over the months-long amnesty.
After FBI agents — under orders from newly-appointed US Attorney General Janet Reno — advanced, firing military grenade launches, three fires broke out in different parts of the compound.
The cult members reportedly set the fires, PBS said, which killed all but nine of them.