Autopsy results for the victims killed in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion reveal the devastating force of the blast.
“Blunt force trauma” or “blast injuries” are cited as the cause of death for all of the volunteer firefighters and West residents killed in the April 17 explosion following a fire at the plant. The autopsies were performed by the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas.
Several suffered burns or “thermal injuries,” and one of the volunteer firefighters had inhaled smoke while combating the flames that engulfed the fertilizer plant, triggering the explosion.
In one of the reports, the medical examiner noted that the blunt force trauma was so extensive, it is unlikely the thermal injuries contributed to the death.
McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya ruled the deaths accidental.
The Tribune-Herald obtained autopsy results for 14 of the 15 victims killed in the blast. The other report was unavailable at press deadline.
The documents outline the grim injuries that struck the victims, including multiple skull and bone fractures, deep lacerations, and exposed or missing organs. Some of the men also had amputated limbs and one was decapitated.
At least half of the firefighters still were covered in some of their protective gear — like firefighter coats and jumpsuits, gloves and work boots — when their bodies were recovered.
One of the autopsies noted that a firefighter was wearing a metal necklace with a cross pendant and carrying more than $1,000 in cash that apparently remained intact.
Autopsies also note that three of the volunteer firefighters who rushed to the scene from homes or other locations had blood alcohol levels above 0.08, the legal driving limit in Texas, while blood tests showed another had THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system.
Most of the firefighters’ remains were discovered within hours of the explosion just before 8 p.m., with Dallas firefighter Kenneth “Luckey” Harris Jr. the first to be found in the rubble at 10:25 p.m.
Eight more were found by 12:30 a.m. April 18. The last explosion victim to be found was 65-year-old Judith Monroe, discovered at 3 p.m. April 18 in an apartment complex, near the fertilizer company, that was destroyed.
A 15th victim, 96-year-old nursing home resident Adolph Lander, died a day and a half after the explosion in a local hospital of a cardiovascular event and injuries sustained in the explosion.
The autopsies do not distinguish whether the blunt force trauma was caused by objects striking the victims as they fought the fire or if the injuries were sustained from the concussion impact of the explosion.
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention states that high-order explosions, including those involving ammonium nitrate, can cause blast injuries from shock wave pressure exuded from the explosion site.
Investigators ultimately concluded that 28 to 34 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate in a wooden bin exploded at the plant.
Other blast injuries can be caused by flying debris or individuals being thrown about by the blast wind. The CDC also notes that explosions can produce unique injury patterns seldom seen outside of combat.