May 2, 2013 — Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has targeted May 10 as the approximate date when his office will complete an investigation into the source of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The explosion that occurred on April 17 killed 15 people, injured 200, and left a crater that was 93 feet in diameter, ripped through a 3-foot concrete floor slab, and dug out an additional 10 feet of earth. The force of the explosion points to ammonium nitrate, which may have involved hundreds of tons because the chemical is in high demand during the spring planting season.
There are still many questions left to answer. The charred ground around the West Fertilizer company office suggests it was the center of the initial fire before the explosion. However, investigators still do not know whether the heat from the fire or the fire itself ignited tanks of ammonium nitrate.
West Fertilizer stored and mixed up to 270 tons of solid ammonium nitrate in a facility called the Dry Barn, which was served by a rail line. Markings on the ground suggest that this facility was not involved in the initial fire. However, when the explosion occurred, the center of the crater is located where the tanks of ammonium nitrate were stored — not the nearby high-pressure tanks of anhydrous ammonia.
In fact, the two 12,000-gallon tanks of high-pressure anhydrous ammonia were protected by a wall and survived the explosion nearly unscathed. This finding is important, because early reports indicated that the explosion may have been caused by firefighters dousing anhydrous ammonia with water.
The explosion also destroyed three grain-storage tanks, which were apparently not involved in the fire, and a rail line. Early reports also suggested that the railroad may have been involved in the explosion, but the only rail car was blown over, suggesting that it was a victim of the explosion and not the source.
Several buildings near the fertilizer plant were also heavily damaged. The worst damage was sustained by a house located 300 feet from the blast site, a 50-unit apartment complex that received the full brunt of the explosion, a nursing home that was partially shielded by the apartment complex, and a middle school severely damaged when the roof lifted and came crashing down. Roof damage also occurred in many houses due to the pressure of the blast wave.
Although there is no indication of foul play, the site of the explosion is being treated as a crime scene. Investigators from 28 state and federal agencies are taking their time sifting through the evidence piece by piece, likening the probe to an “archeological dig site.”
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