Federal and state agencies investigating the April 17, 2013, fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant said Wednesday that the devastating event was triggered by human hands.
At a press conference Wednesday in West, Robert Elder, special agent in charge of the Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the cause of the fire was “incendiary, a criminal act.”
The three-year investigation by numerous agencies ruled out all accidental or natural causes for the fire that sparked explosions that demolished much of West with the force equal to 20,000 pounds of TNT.
“The only hypothesis that could not be eliminated is incendiary,” Elder said.
He said more than 400 interviews have been conducted during the large-scale investigation but declined to say if officials have a suspect.
Elder said the investigation is one of the largest in scope the ATF has ever conducted and has cost more than $2 million so far.
Elder also announced that the ATF is offering a reward up to $50,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or people who might have started the fire. Waco-McLennan County Crime Stoppers is offering an additional $2,000 reward.
“We have never stopped investigating this fire,” Elder said. “It is our highest priority. We owe that to the victims. We believe we are on the right track.”
The news conference was attended by media from Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
The fire at the fertilizer company detonated 30 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that was piled high in a flammable wooden bin. The resulting explosion killed 15 people, including 12 first responders, injured more than 200 people and destroyed neighborhoods, schools, a nursing home, an apartment complex and the city park and rocked the city’s infrastructure.
A month after the explosion, federal and state investigators said they could not rule out arson, electrical wiring problems or a battery-powered golf cart stored near the fertilizer as possible origins for the fire. At the time, they did eliminate the possibility that the fire was caused by weather, spontaneous ignition, smoking or the rekindling of a fire earlier in the day.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board called the disaster preventable, faulting the wooden construction of the fertilizer bins and the lack of a fire suppression system, as well as failures in the chemical regulatory system.
Hundreds of investigators from 28 agencies collected and studied debris from as far as 2½ miles from the scene; conducted hundreds of interviews; and hand-sifted 300,000 pounds of corn and sorghum, kernel by kernel. They built models of the buildings and electrical systems.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said it is “extremely disturbing” that the cause of the fire was ruled incendiary and not accidental.
“There are now many questions that need to be answered for the sake of the community and the lives we lost. The citizens of West have been through so much over the last three years and deserve incredible credit for their tenacity in the face of adversity,” Flores said.
Elder said ATF investigators have a special kinship with firefighters and said the agency owes it to those who lost their lives battling the blaze at the plant to bring a culprit to justice.
“We feel like we have left no stone unturned in this investigation. We didn’t want this to be a criminal act. That’s just where the evidence took us,” Elder said after the press conference.
Elder declined comment when asked how confident he is that an arrest will be made.
“I won’t speculate about that,” he said. “I don’t want to get into specifics, but if we get the right break and with the public’s help . . . That was part of the reason we are here today, to seek the public’s help with any information possible that could help.”
The blast, which occurred 22 minutes after the first fire alarm went out, made a crater 93 feet wide and 12 feet deep, Elder said.
As part of the investigation, officials constructed a life-size replica of the plant’s seed room at an ATF fire research lab in Maryland, Elder said. Agents determined the fire started in the seed room, he said.
While he declined to say if the bureau has suspects, Elder ruled out former West paramedic Bryce Reed as a suspect in the West Fertilizer plant fire.
Reed, who has said he responded to the fire call, pleaded guilty to building a destructive device and attempting to tamper with evidence after investigators found him with materials to make a pipe bomb weeks after the explosion. Reed was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison in December 2013 and already has served his time.
Investigators said at the time that the wooden fertilizer bins caught fire, and the heat caused the fertilizer to create flammable gases. The gases accumulated under pressure in the tall column of the bin, and falling equipment and debris created the shock necessary to set off a portion of the fertilizer that had become “highly sensitized,” Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said three years ago.
The first blast set off another portion of the ammonium nitrate a few milliseconds later, a sequence confirmed by seismic readings miles away at Lake Whitney.
Officials said 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, leaving 20 to 30 tons that did not explode. Another 100 tons were sitting in a boxcar nearby that did not explode. The bin that exploded was about 20 to 24 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 30 feet deep, officials said.
In June 2015, the Legislature passed a fertilizer safety bill inspired by the West tragedy that state Rep. Kyle Kacal, who authored the bill, said should ensure that no more ammonium nitrate facilities explode.
“We’re going to make this state safer,” Kacal, R-College Station, said at the bill signing. “I hope there’s not another fire at one of these facilities. We cannot prevent those, but a fire should not be catastrophic.”
The bill requires ammonium nitrate dealers to allow state fire marshal inspections, to maintain a 30-foot distance between the fertilizer and flammable materials and to report their storage quantities to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rather than the Department of State Health Services.
Dozens of lawsuits
The explosion also spawned dozens of lawsuits, including damage claims from the city of West, West schools, West Rest Haven nursing home and more than 200 homeowners.
Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Harrison, of Waco, said he watched Wednesday’s press conference with interest.
“There has been some misinformation in the media about what the ATF was announcing today,” Harrison said. “ATF Special Agent in Charge Rob Elder and District Attorney Abel Reyna said the ATF is looking at the cause and origin of the fire. They said storage of the ammonium nitrate product that exploded was not part of the ATF investigation. ATF did not investigate what exploded, why it exploded, who knew it could explode and what was done with that information. All of that is the subject of pending civil litigation. A civil jury will hear evidence on all of those issues.”
West Mayor Tommy Muska, whose father also served as mayor of West, said he was not notified about the ATF press conference. He deferred comment to Harrison because of the pending civil litigation.
The first two civil trial settings — the first in October, the second in January — were canceled after the parties reached undisclosed settlements and partial settlements. The third trial was moved recently from May 16 to July 25, while parties continue settlement negotiations.
Defendants include CF Industries; El Dorado Chemical Co.; Adair Grain Co., owner of West Fertilizer Co.; Thermaclime Inc.; and International Chemical Co.
The defendants either manufactured or sold fertilizer to West Fertilizer Co.
Adair Grain has filed a counterclaim against the four fertilizer producers and sellers.
Judge Jim Meyer of Waco’s 170th State District Court denied a defense request in March to transfer the July trial to another county.