One month after a fire triggered a massive blast at a Texas fertiliser plant that killed 15 people, officials yesterday 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 April 17 inside the seed and fertiliser building at West Fertiliser, in West, a tiny Texas town near Waco, 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.
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 20,000 pounds of TNT.
Among the dead were 10 members of the emergency services and two people who had joined in to fight the fire. The blast registered as a small earthquake and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet 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 yesterday refused to take questions on the arrest of Bryce Reed, a West paramedic who responded to the blast but was held 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.
His lawyer 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 spokeswoman for the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the death toll had officially reached 15 with the decision 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 had previously said the man died of his pre-existing ailments.