Crime not ruled out in Texas blast

2013-05-17 13:02
Mourners attend a service at St Mary's Church of the Assumption a day after an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas. (File, AP)

Mourners attend a service at St Mary's Church of the Assumption a day after an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, Texas. (File, AP)

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Texas - One month after a fire triggered a massive blast at a Texas fertiliser plant that killed 15 people, officials on Thursday had to declare the cause of the blaze as "undetermined."

Investigators narrowed the number of possible causes to three: a problem with one of the plant's electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart, and a criminal act. They ruled out a wide number of others, from a rail car on site loaded with fertiliser to someone smoking.

But they could not say with certainty what caused a fire on 17 April inside the seed and fertiliser building at West Fertiliser Co, in West, a tiny Texas town previously known for its Czech bakeries and heritage.

Kelly Kistner, the Texas assistant state fire marshal, said the fire caused stored ammonium nitrate to change states, while also causing debris in the wooden building to begin to fall.

The blast was actually two explosions: a small one that occurred about 20 minutes after the fire was reported, followed by a larger one a split second later, Kistner said.

About 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the plant exploded. Another 20 to 30 tons stored on site, along with a rail car carrying 100 tons of ammonium nitrate, did not explode, officials said.

The power of the blast was equivalent to about 9 000kg of TNT.


Among the dead were 10 first responders and two people who had joined in to fight the fire. The blast registered as a small earthquake and left a crater 28m wide and 3m deep. It destroyed an apartment building, homes and parts of schools nearby.

The golf cart was parked in the room where investigators believe the blast began, officials said. The golf cart's batteries hold a charge and when they fail, they can ignite the materials around them, officials said. They found two pieces of the cart: a brake pad and the axle.

As part of their site investigation, officials tried to reconstruct part of one building on the plant site with debris and as much of the power systems as they could. They were able to rule out a higher-voltage electrical system used at the plant.

Officials have ruled out the possibility that the blast was an act of terror, but not that it was a crime. They refused on Thursday to take questions on the arrest of Bryce Reed, a West paramedic who responded to the blast but was arrested weeks later with what authorities said were materials for a pipe bomb.

The Texas Rangers, a state investigative agency, and the local county sheriff's office opened their own criminal investigation after his arrest.

Reed's attorney has denied that his client had any role in the blast, and the McLennan County Sheriff's Office said last week that there was no evidence linking Reed to the explosion. He pleaded not guilty this week to the possession charge.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical used as a fertiliser that also can be used as a cheap alternative to dynamite. It was the chemical used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Rachel Moreno, a spokesperson 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.

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