WEST, Texas — Investigators have completed their scene investigation but not ruled out criminal activity as the cause of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and flattened part of a tiny Texas town, officials said Thursday.
The April 17 blast at West Fertilizer injured 200 and leveled part of the tiny town of West. Officials have spent one month combing through debris and speaking to hundreds of witnesses.
“At this time, the State Fire Marhsal’s Office and ATF are ruling the cause of the fire as undetermined,” State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said at a news conference Thursday. He said officials had briefed victims’ families earlier with the hope of giving them some degree of closure.
Possible causes of the fire that triggered two explosions have been narrowed to a 120-volt electrical system at the plant, a golf cart or an intentionally set fire, officials said. A criminal investigation continues.
The golf cart was parked in the seed room and had been recalled by its manufacturer. All that was found of it were a brake pad and an axle.
“There’s a history of golf carts actually starting fires,” said Brian Hoback, national response team supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The batteries hold a charge and when they fail they can ignite the materials around them.
Kelly Kistner, assistant state fire marshal, said investigators estimated that between 28 and 34 tons of ammonium nitrate on the site exploded. But there were about 150 tons of the chemical on the site at the time, including 100 tons in a rail car that did not explode. The chemical that exploded was stored in wooden bins. Kistner said the ammonium nitrate was the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of dynamite.
Robert Champion, the ATF agent in charge of the scene, said investigators had ruled out other possible causes, including a higher voltage electrical system at the site, smoking or a weather-related fire.
Officials have determined that ammonium nitrate exploded, but they do not know what started the initial fire. The fire created the conditions for an initial smaller explosion, which Kistner said was only “milliseconds” before the larger explosion. What seemed like a single explosion to witnesses registered as two separate events, he said.
Bryce Reed, a paramedic who responded to the blast, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a charge he possessed bomb-making materials, but authorities stressed again Thursday that they have nothing linking Reed to the blast. Federal investigators allege Reed had materials for a pipe bomb that he gave to someone else. Authorities said they would not take questions Thursday about Reed’s case.
The dead included 10 first responders and two volunteers trying to fight the initial fire, which was reported 18 minutes before the blast. The explosion registered as a small earthquake, sent debris flying more than a mile away, and left a 93-foot-wide crater at the site of a fertilizer storage building on site.
Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the death toll had officially reached 15 with the determination by a local justice of the peace that an elderly man who died after being evacuated from the nursing home had been an explosion-related death. The nursing home’s medical director previously had said the man died of his pre-existing ailments.
Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office were left with an investigation some compared to an archaeological dig. The agencies brought in dozens of agents to sift through remnants of the site, stacking any piece of debris that might be useful on blue tarps and hauling away the rest.
ATF has spent nearly $1 million on the investigation. Among the painstaking tasks was sifting by hand through 300,000 pounds of corn stored in a silo on the site, officials said. They also reconstructed the fertilizer and seed building and the electrical system.
Ammonium nitrate is a chemical used as a fertilizer that also can be used as a cheap alternative to dynamite. It was the chemical used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The fire marshal’s office had previously ruled out several possible causes for the initial fire, including another fertilizer stored on site, anhydrous ammonia; a rail car on the site that was carrying ammonium nitrate; and a fire within a storage bin of ammonium nitrate.
Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair Grain Co., which owned and operated West Fertilizer, has said the company is cooperating with authorities, but declined to comment further.