WEST (CBS 11 NEWS) – Investigators say the fire at the West Fertilizer company plant caused two powerful explosions last month, killing 15 people, 12 of them firefighters.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy says, “I don’t recall a tragedy of recent times in Texas, and certainly one of the worst in American history with first responders.”
After a nearly one month long investigation involving 29 state and federal agencies and more than 100 people, the state fire marshal and ATF say they have ruled the cause of the fire undetermined.
They say someone may have intentionally set the fire, and that this could have been a criminal act.
Authorities also say the plant’s electrical system may have sparked the fire, or even a battery-operated golf cart that was sitting where the fire began.
Brian Hoback, the ATF National Response Team Supervisor says, “Some of the golf carts are battery powered, and they have history there is data on that, historical data where they have caused a fire. because we have not found all the pieces of this particular golf cart we can not eliminate that golf cart.”
Authorities say the intense heat of the fire caused 28-34 tons of ammonium nitrate inside the building to explode.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner says, “In this particular case, we know we had a fire before the explosion and as the temperature increased, the pressure increased. As that happened, and as the ammonium nitrate began to change states, the sensitivity to shock increased. Falling debris and equipment impacted the sensitive portion of the ammonium nitrate. That caused the first explosion. That explosion provided sufficient heat and shock to cause the remaining majority of the ammonium nitrate to explode. The ammonium nitrate that exploded was equivalent to approximately 15,000-20,000 pounds of TNT.”
The explosions created a 93 foot crater 10 feet deep.
Most of the debris from the plant explosion spread three thousand feet away.
The furthest piece of evidence was found two and a half miles away.
As destructive as the blasts were, they could have been worse.
Authorities say there were still about 130 tons of the chemical in and around the plant that didn’t explode.
The blast ripped apart businesses, schools, a nursing home and houses.
All these weeks later, residential areas are a ghost town.
Homeowners have taken their valuables and left.
All who remain are demolition crews.
Bettye Tucker says she lost her home.
She also owns the now destroyed apartment complex that’s become one of the lasting visual symbols of what happened here.
Tucker says the findings are disappointing. “It is a little frustrating when they do all that research, and they don’t really know.”
Tucker says she doesn’t blame the plant’s owner, saying he didn’t know this was going to happen.
She says the rest of the city built around that facility.
While authorities say they couldn’t rule out the fire was arson, the ATF agents say they wouldn’t speculate whether a former paramedic from West, Bryce Reed, is connected to the fire.
A federal grand jury has charged him with possessing a destructive device after they say he had components to make a pipe bomb.
Reed has pleaded not guilty to that charge, and his attorney Jonathan Sibley has strongly denied his client had anything to do with the fire at the plant.
The McLennan County Sheriffs Department has also said there’s no evidence Reed is connected.
If convicted on the charge of possessing the destructive device , Reed faces a maximum penalty of ten years in federal prison.
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