WEST, TX – Three years after 15 people died in an explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) say the blast was intentionally set.
In 2013, dazed and injured residents of the small town near Waco thought an airplane had crashed into their apartments or homes, while others thought a bomb had exploded.
As it turned out, the West fertilizer plant across the street from the high school was itself a bomb, set off by a combination of anhydrous ammonia and fertilizer, the same combination used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The blast was powerful enough to register 2.1 on the Richter scale, about the size of a small earthquake. Witnesses say they felt the shock up to 50 miles away.
Fifteen people died from the blast and more than 160 ended up in hospitals as far away as Parkland in Dallas.
Back in April 2013, investigators din’t think the fire was deliberately set, but that all changed on Wednesday when the ATF announced at a press conference their new findings.
It’s too early to speculate whether murder charges will be filed, authorities said Wednesday, but at this time no one has been arrested. Authorities said they ruled the fire incendiary after conducting 400 interviews.
The ATF is offering $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of whoever set the fire, which also destroyed 500 homes. Crime Stoppers is offering another $2,000 in reward money. If you know anything, call 254-753-HELP”
Attorney General Ken Paxton and OAG Director of Law Enforcement David Maxwell released the following statements following the announcement that the 2013 explosion in West, Texas, was caused by an intentionally-set fire:
“The devastating explosion in West impacted all Texans, especially those who lost loved ones that day, and forever changed that tightly-knit community,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said. “I applaud the diligence of the federal, state, and local agencies who are working tirelessly on this case and will assist in any way to ensure that the perpetrators responsible for this devastating act are found and brought to justice.”
“Our office stands ready and willing to assist local prosecutors in pursuing the potential criminal acts behind this catastrophe that claimed the lives of 15 Texans,” OAG Director of Law Enforcement David Maxwell said. “So many law enforcement professionals have already done tedious and exceptional work to present these findings released today. We will gladly assist in any way possible in the days ahead to expose the criminals behind this heinous crime.”
Possible, impossible causes
About a month after the blast, the state fire marshal's office said four potential causes -- weather, natural causes, anhydrous ammonium, and ammonium nitrate in a rail car -- had been eliminated.
But State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said investigators were not able to rule out three possible causes, including a spark from a golf cart, an electrical short or an intentionally set fire.
The West Fertilizer Co., which operated the facility, had warned state and local officials but not federal agencies that it had 270 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate on site, according to regulatory records.
The company had been cited by federal regulators twice since 2006.
A U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation concluded the explosion was preventable, board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said on the one-year anniversary of the blast.
The investigation blamed the company that owned the fertilizer plant, government regulators and other authorities for the catastrophe.
"It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it," Moure-Eraso said.
Thousands in fines
In 2012, the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for storing anhydrous ammonia in tanks that lacked the proper warning labels.
The agency originally recommended a $10,000 penalty, but it was reduced after the company took corrective action.
In 2006, the EPA fined the company $2,300 and told its owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also investigated a complaint about the lingering smell of ammonia around the plant the same year.
Victims as heroes
The blast was so catastrophic, it leveled houses for blocks around.
"It demolished both the houses there -- mine and my mom's -- and it killed my dog," said Cheryl Marak, who lived nearby, hours after the explosion.
But her husband Marty, a volunteer firefighter, had no time for panic or grief that night. He sped right toward the danger, even as the threat of a second explosion loomed.
A flood of other volunteers also scrambled to the scene, including firefighters and emergency medical personnel from hundreds of miles away, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.
Like the rest of the firefighters in West, Marty Marak wasn't getting paid to help save his community.
"That's just the way that we Texans are wired," said Rep. Bill Flores, whose district represents West. "Even though we face our own personal tragedies from time to time, we still know that we have to go help others -- and then assess our own tragedies later on."