Investigators picking over the scene of last week’s deadly fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, ruled out a lightning strike and other “natural” causes.
Debris is scattered across a 37-block area of town following the April 17 disaster, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said yesterday at a press briefing in West. Investigators are working from the outer edges of the scene toward the center, he said.
The blast left a crater 93 feet (28 meters) wide and 10 feet deep, Special Agent Robert Champion of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said at the briefing. Mayor Tommy Muska said he met with staff in the Texas Senate and Gov. Rick Perry’s office to discuss whether the Legislature can appropriate money to repair water, sewer and other infrastructure that was damaged.
“We need some moneys now so we can get that put in,” he said in an interview yesterday. “Without it, people aren’t going to be able to rebuild.”
The explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. was the worst U.S. industrial accident since April 2010, when 29 coal miners died in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine. Firefighters were trying to control the blaze when the plant exploded at 7:53 p.m. local time, destroying 50 homes, a nursing home and an apartment complex, and leaving three of the town’s five schools closed. The victims include 10 firefighters and emergency medical personnel and two passersby who stopped to help.
The fire wasn’t caused by a rail car at the facility, Kistner said. Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that a rail car full of ammonium nitrate may have caused the fire, the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday.
About 70 investigators including engineers and chemists from state and federal agencies are poring over the scene, Kistner said. They’ve interviewed 60 to 70 witnesses, including passers-by and emergency crews.
“We need to make sure the scientific process we adhere to is followed,” Kistner said. “This is much like an archaeological dig.”
The ATF has sent samples of chemicals to its laboratory for analysis, Champion said.
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