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Feds: Someone Intentionally Set the West Fertilizer Plant Fire That Killed 15 People

After a three-year, $2 million investigation involving more than 400 interviews, federal authorities announced today that the West, Texas, plant fire and explosion that killed 15 people was the result of arson.

On the evening of April 17, 2013, a fire erupted at the West Fertilizer Co., then, roughly 20 minutes later, the notoriously volatile chemical ammonium nitrate inside the plant exploded, just as emergency crews and volunteers were arriving on scene. Roughly 300 people were injured; 12 of the 15 who died were emergency responders, and more than 500 homes were destroyed, nearly wiping out half the town. Following the blast, in place of the fertilizer plant was a 93-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep crater. Debris from the explosion was recovered as far as two and a half miles away.

Rob Elder, special agent in charge with the Houston Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that investigators reached the conclusion that this fire was intentionally set only after ruling out every conceivable accidental or natural cause. Within a month of the tragedy, investigators initially believed that the fire was caused by either faulty electrical wiring, a spark from a golf cart parked next to the fertilizer, or arson. Hogan said that a large portion of the $2 million spent on the investigation went toward rebuilding portions of the West plant at the ATF laboratories in order to determine exactly how this could have happened, and after re-creating the conditions, investigators were left with arson as the single explanation.

“We have never stopped investigating this fire,” he said. “It is our highest priority to see that the victims of this tragedy are provided an accurate explanation of what happened that day.”

In the months following the explosion, officials from a myriad of local, state and federal agencies vowed to make changes that would decrease the odds that something like this could ever happen again, such as requiring companies to improve safety measures in general and especially in how they store chemicals like ammonium nitrate. But in January, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released a 265-page report about the shortcomings in federal and state regulations that failed to reduce the risk of a massive explosion like this.

As we reported in January, however, it appeared that even three years after the blast, companies were still allowed to store thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate in places less than a half mile from a school or nursing home, for example. The Chemical Safety Board, as a result, concluded that government had made “limited” improvements in bringing about any changes in how companies are required to handle ammonium nitrate, and it recommended that better training be required.

As for the arson, the ATF is offering a reward of up to $50,000 to whoever has information about who set the fire. Call 254-753-4357 or submit tips at
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn