WEST (CBSDFW.COM) – Friday marks one month since the powerful and deadly fire and explosions that forever changed the small Texas town of West. Investigators said that the fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant caused two powerful blasts, killing 15 people, 12 of them firefighters.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said, “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 month-long investigation involving 29 state and federal agencies and more than 100 people, the state fire marshal and ATF said that they may never know what caused the fire.
Cause of Fire
As a result, they have ruled so far, the cause of the fire is undetermined. They said that someone may have intentionally set the fire, and that this could have been a criminal act.
Authorities also said that 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, said, “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 said that the intense heat of the fire caused 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate inside of the building to explode. There was a smaller explosion first, quickly followed by a much larger blast.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said, “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 to 20,000 pounds of TNT.”
The explosions created a 93-foot crater, 10 feet deep.
Most of the debris from the plant explosion spread 3,000 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 said that there were still about 130 tons of the chemical in and around the plant that did not explode.
A timeline released by authorities shows a swift response by West’s volunteer firefighters. Investigators said that the fire began at 7:29 p.m. on April 17. Firefighters got the call at 7:32 p.m. and were en route just a minute later. They arrived at the plant at 7:38 p.m., and requested assistance from other fire departments at 7:41 p.m.
At 7:51 p.m., 22 minutes after the fire began, the explosions rocked the plant and surrounding community.
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 said that she lost her home. She also owns the now destroyed apartment complex that has become one of the lasting visual symbols of what happened here. Tucker said that the findings are disappointing. “It is a little frustrating,” she said, “when they do all that research, and they don’t really know.”
Tucker said that she does not blame the plant’s owner, adding he did not know this was going to happen. She said that the rest of the city built around that facility.
While authorities could not rule out that the fire was arson, ATF agents said that they would not speculate whether a former paramedic from West, Bryce Reed, is connected to the fire.
A federal grand jury has charged Reed with possessing a destructive device after they said that he had components to make a pipe bomb. Reed has pleaded not guilty to that charge, and his attorney, Jonathan Sibley, has strongly denied that his client had anything to do with the fire at the plant.
The McLennan County Sheriff’s Department has also said that there is no evidence connecting Reed to the fire.
If convicted on the charge of possessing the destructive device, Reed faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
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