May 17, 2013 / 12:25 AM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 3-Arson not ruled out in fire that caused West, Texas, blast

(Adds statement from West Fertilizer Co attorney in paragraphs
    By Lisa Maria Garza
    WEST, Texas, May 16 (Reuters) - The cause of a fire that
triggered a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West,
Texas, has been ruled undetermined, and investigators have not
eliminated the possibility that the fire was set intentionally,
state and federal officials said on Thursday.
    Robert Champion, a special agent in charge at the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that while
authorities could not rule out arson, they also could not
eliminate the plant's electrical system or a golf cart at the
plant as potential causes.
    The West Fertilizer Co facility exploded on April 17 about
20 minutes after a fire was reported at the plant. The blast -
actually, what officials described on Thursday as a pair of
blasts separated by milliseconds - killed 14 people and badly
damaged a residential area, including an apartment building,
nursing home and school.
    The investigation, which cost the ATF more than $1 million,
involved pursuing 280 leads, interviewing 500 people, and
sifting through 300,000 pounds (136 metric tons) of corn by hand
to collect evidence, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner
    "It's like taking a large puzzle, putting it on the coffee
table and trying to put the pieces back together, but you don't
know if the pieces are all there to begin with," Kistner said. 
    The investigation of the scene is complete but the overall
probe into the fire is continuing, State Fire Marshal Chris
Connealy said. The fire marshal's office also is investigating
the deaths of the first responders.
    Most of the dead were firefighters and paramedics who
responded to the initial fire. Some 200 people were injured.
    "This was one of the worst events among first responders,"
Connealy said. "We wanted to leave no stone unturned to give
this community some aspects of closure."
    John McCoy, an attorney who represents West Fertilizer, said
in a statement that the company would not "offer any additional
comments or opinions at this time."
    "The authorities repeatedly emphasized that their
investigation continues, as does ours," McCoy said.
    The plant stored anhydrous ammonia, a liquid fertilizer, as
well as ammonium nitrate, a dry fertilizer that can ignite in
certain conditions. Ammonium nitrate was an ingredient in the
device used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed more
than 160 people and destroyed a federal building.
    Investigators had previously ruled out possible causes
including the weather, natural causes, a fire within the
ammonium nitrate bin, a rail car containing ammonium nitrate 
and anhydrous ammonia, another fertilizer component.
    Investigators believe the fire started somewhere in the
12,000-square-foot (1,100-square-meter) fertilizer and seed
building. They confirmed last week that ammonium nitrate stored
at the plant detonated in the explosion.
    "As temperature increased, the pressure increased, which
made the ammonium nitrate change states and its sensitivity to
shock increase," Kistner said. "A portion of ammonium nitrate
caused the first explosion."
    The small explosion produced enough heat and shock to cause
the remaining ammonium nitrate to massively explode, he said.
    Between 28 and 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the
plant, and an additional 20 to 30 tons were in the building but
did not explode, Kistner said. In addition, there were 100 tons
of ammonium nitrate in a rail car that did not explode, though
the rail car itself "was a victim of the explosion," Kistner
    "To put this in a different perspective, the ammonium
nitrate that exploded was equivalent to approximately 15,000 to
20,000 pounds of TNT," Kistner said. 
    State officials last week announced a criminal probe into
the explosion. 
    Bryce Reed, a paramedic who was among the first responders
at the explosion site, was arrested last week for possession of
pipe bomb components. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in
Waco on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to the charge on
Wednesday, federal prosecutors said.
    "At this time, we won't speculate on whether there is a
connection between (Reed) and the fertilizer plant explosion,"
Champion said.
    Reed's lawyer, Jonathan Sibley, said in a statement on
Wednesday that Reed denies any involvement in the plant
    "We continue to ask our community to reserve judgment until
the facts and evidence are known," Sibley said.

 (Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Cynthia Johnston,
Cynthia Osterman and Bill Trott)

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