Officials unable to determine cause in West Fertilizer explosion

17 May 2013 00:01  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Federal and state officials said Thursday despite an extensive and costly investigation they are unable to determine what caused the massive lethal explosion at West Fertilizer in Texas on 17 April, which killed 14, injured 200 and caused approximately $100m (€78m) in structural damages.

Speaking at a news conference in the small rural community of West, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said although the scene investigation has been completed at this time the cause of the fire is undetermined.

Labelling it as an ongoing criminal investigation, authorities will continue to obtain and review the evidence in an effort to bring forth a final ruling at some point.

“This community has suffered a great tragedy and us at the State Fire Marshal’s Office along with the ATF and 28 other agencies have been working on a common goal of discovering what happened,” said Connealy. “I emphasize the investigation is still going on but we have worked very hard.”

Authorities with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the State Fire Marshal Office (SFMO) have determined that ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden bins at the facility and is the source of the eruption.

It has been determined that 150 tons (136 tonnes) were on site within the seed building at the facility at the time of the blast and was located a short distance from where investigators believe the fire ignited within the 12,000-square-foot (1,100 square meter) structure.

SFMO lead investigator Kelly Kistner said it is being ruled that a portion of the ammonium nitrate initially caught on fire and led to the remaining tons being ignited. He said there was approximately 20-30 tons that did not explode and that 100 tons stored in the railcar adjacent to West Fertilizer did not erupt either.

Kistner said it has been determined that there were two explosions at the site, coming milliseconds apart, and that the force of the blast was the equivalent of 15,000-20,000 pounds of TNT.  

ATF Special Agent Robert Chapman said the agency has reviewed the fire and at this point have eliminated the possibility of rekindling of an earlier fire as a culprit. He said there was no early fire on 17 April and that the distribution facility had two electrical systems and the larger of the two has been ruled out thereby squashing any theories about spontaneous ignition.

The ATF has also eliminated ammonia and ammonium nitrate along with cigarette smoking and weather as causes of the fire, which eventually sparked the explosions.

Chapman said the investigators can not rule out at this time that the smaller electrical system, described as 120-volt power supply similar to one in most homes, a battery-powered golf cart or the possibility that it was started intentionally as sources of the fire.

The golf cart suspicion drew quite the response from the assembled media as they repeatedly asked for further details.

Officials responded by saying golf carts have a history of combusting and the vehicle was located within the same seed storage building. Investigators have only recovered a brake pad and an axle from the golf cart and said Thursday there is not enough evidence to eliminate it as a source.

State officials said ATF has spent over $1m on the investigation, including $500,000 just in heavy equipment rentals. Additionally over 280 leads have been pursued and approximately 500 interviews conducted in the course of the month-long investigation.

Asked about former West volunteer emergency medical technician Bryce Ashley Reed, 31, who was initially arrested for possessing an unregistered destructive device and then later charged by a federal grand jury on possession of an unregistered firearm, authorities said they would not speculate or answer any questions on that matter.

Reed remains in custody while awaiting a future hearing on his detention and possible release on bond. If convicted, Reed could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

His court-appointed defense attorney, Jonathan Sibley, said Reed denies the charges against him and had nothing to do with the West Fertilizer fire or the subsequent blast.

By: Mark Milam
+1 713 525 2653

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