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Interim Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said at a news conference: "There are fatalities ... we have moved to recovery mode."
Earlier, Kanger said he was not sure how many workers might be trapped in the International Nutrition plant, where an explosion, fire and building collapse were reported about 10am (local time). The chief said that as many as 38 employees were in the building and that some might be trapped in what he described as a dangerous area.
"It's very extreme conditions" inside the plant now, Kanger told reporters. "There is significant structural damage inside."
Workers' relatives gathered at the plant site, and many told local media they had received cellphone calls from loved ones inside who said one or two people might be missing or trapped.
Kanger told reporters that he had requested help from urban search and rescue experts based in Lincoln, Neb., about 50 miles southwest.
Nebraska Task Force 1, the Urban Search and Rescue team based at the Lincoln Fire & Rescue Department, has been deployed to Omaha, Lincoln Fire Chief John Huff announced. The 25-member team has expertise in the areas of structural collapse shoring and technical search. The team also includes canine search specialists, he said in a prepared statement.
Plant worker Nate Lewis said he felt fortunate to have made it out. Lewis, 21, told reporters that he was on the first floor when he heard the blast. The building went dark, so he used light from his cellphone to make his way across the production floor to safety outside.
"I was a production line worker, although I don't know if I want to be that anymore," said Lewis, who said he had worked at International Nutrition for about four months.
The incident began with what authorities said appeared to be an explosion and fire. The cause will be investigated after the search and rescue effort is completed, Kanger said.
No hazardous chemicals were kept at the plant, the chief said.
Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha was treating four workers from the plant, according to a spokeswoman. Two of them were admitted, one with a collapsed lung and one with hypothermia. In addition, a firefighter was released after receiving stitches in his hand.
Three other patients at Alegent Creighton hospital in Omaha were listed in critical, serious and fair conditions. Two of them were transferred to St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, a spokeswoman said. Three others were taken to Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha; their conditions were not immediately available.