(Updates with more details of 2011 inspection, number
By Carey Gillam and Corrie MacLaggan
WEST, Texas, April 19 Investigators searched for
clues on Friday to the cause of a Texas fertilizer plant
explosion that obliterated sections of a small town and killed
at least 12 people, including volunteer firefighters who raced
to the scene to douse a blaze.
There was no indication of foul play in the blast at West
Fertilizer Co, a privately owned facility that authorities said
had not been inspected in two years.
The farm supply business, located in a residential area of
West, had told a state agency that it stored potentially
combustible ammonium nitrate on the site.
A Texas state official said Friday that 12 people died in
the blast and approximately 200 were injured. Earlier, the mayor
of West said 14 had died.
Texas U.S. Senator John Cornyn said the deputy fire marshal
of the town told him that 60 people were still unaccounted for
but that number was expected to come down. Authorities are
cross-referencing people who are at the hospital, maybe staying
with relatives or have left town, he said.
"I would just take that (number) with a grain of caution,"
The deaths included paramedics and volunteer firefighters
who responded to an initial fire alarm, and likely were killed
by the ensuing blast, which was so powerful it registered as a
magnitude 2.1 earthquake.
It left a devastated landscape, reducing a 50-unit apartment
complex to what one local official called "a skeleton standing
up," destroying about 50 homes and heavily damaging a nursing
home and schools.
Officials on Friday said 25 homes had yet to be searched. In
some cases the structures needed to be reinforced before anyone
could enter, they said
The explosion was one of a series of events that put
Americans on edge this week including the Boston marathon
bombing and discovery of poisoned envelopes addressed to
President Barack Obama and a Republican U.S. senator.
Authorities were still calling the blast site a crime scene
though they said they strongly suspected an accident.
The death toll was huge for a town of 2,700, and nearly
everyone seemed to know someone who died or was presumed dead.
Brian Uptmor, 37 said his brother disappeared after he went
toward the fire on Wednesday night to try to save horses in a
pasture near the plant.
William "Buck" Uptmor, 44, has not been found among the
injured at area hospitals, has not answered his cell phone and
his truck has not moved from where he left it.
"He is dead. We don't know where his body is," said Uptmor,
a former firefighter. "It'll probably hit me at the funeral."
Residents of the town known for its Czech heritage gathered
at the Out West Bar and Grill in downtown West on Thursday
night, where some of the first responders who died in the blast
used to drink beer with them.
"Everyone's still shocked," said 48-year-old Kenny Chudej,
who listed the names of several people he said he knew had died
in the explosion. "We lost a lot of good friends. I don't think
it has hit home yet. Having a drink or two helps level it out."
West Mayor Tommy Muska has said four paramedics are among
the dead, and that five volunteer firefighters are listed as
missing and feared dead.
Cornyn and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who visited the
blast site on Friday, said they were shocked at the tangled
wreckage of one fire truck.
Volunteers and truckloads of donations were arriving in West
from around the state, providing food, clothing and household
items for people who lost their residences and possessions.
"It hit close to home. I'm still in shock," said 34-year-old
Jami Staggs, who came from Waco 20 miles (32 km) away to help
set up a site where West residents could pick up donated items.
West Fertilizer Co is a retail facility that blends
fertilizer and sells anhydrous ammonia and other chemical
products to local farmers. It stored 270 tons of "extremely
hazardous" ammonium nitrate, according to a report filed by the
company with the state government.
Farmers use anhydrous ammonia as fertilizer to boost soil
nitrogen levels and improve crop production.
The West plant is one of thousands of sites across rural
America that stores and sells hazardous materials such as
chemicals and fertilizer for agricultural use. Many are near
residences and schools.
The plant was last inspected for safety in 2011, according
to a Risk Management Plan filed with the federal Environmental
The company, which has fewer than 10 employees, had provided
no contingency plan to the EPA for a major explosion or fire at
the site. It told the EPA in 2011 that a typical emergency
scenario at the facility that holds anhydrous ammonia could
result in a small release in gas form.
The EPA fined the firm $2,300 in 2006 for failing to
implement a risk management plan.
The plant's owner could not be reached for comment.
While authorities stressed it was still to early to
speculate on the precise cause of the blast, a forensic sciences
expert said investigators probably would consider at least two
John Goodpaster, assistant professor and director of
forensic sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University
Indianapolis, said anhydrous ammonia is stored in liquid form
but forms a vapor when mixed with air that can be explosive.
If enough heat is applied to a container of anhydrous
ammonia, he said, "that container could become a bomb."
A second possibility is that ammonium nitrate, which was
stored at the facility, could have exploded, said Goodpaster.
This was the cause of one of America's worst industrial
accidents. In 1947 ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship in a
Texas City port, killing nearly 600 people.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza, Nick Carey, Anna
Driver and Josh Schneyer; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by