Cause of Fire at West Fertilizer Co. Remains Unknown; Scene Investigation Complete

Investigators early this month look through the debris of the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas (AP Photo/LM Otero) Investigators early this month look through the debris of the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas (AP Photo/LM Otero)

After a month-long scene investigation, investigators still do not know what caused the fire that led to a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in Texas.

Authorities held a press conference late May 16 in West, Texas. They say they have narrowed the causes to several possibilities—crime among them—but they cannot be certain.

“At this time, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] are ruling the cause of the fire as undetermined,” says State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy.

He says the investigation remains open to conduct more interviews and follow leads. Over 200 leads were developed and 400 interviews were conducted thus far, say authorities.

More than 100 agents, investigators and experts have been on the scene since the fertilizer retailer exploded April 17 shortly after a fire was reported at the site.

Ammonium nitrate stored at the site was the trigger of the blast, authorities have concluded. Hundreds of tons of the highly-volatile chemical compound used to fertilize crops was stored at the site.

The force and shockwaves from the explosion, which registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake and left a crater in the ground, leveled some nearby homes and an apartment complex. It also severely damaged a retirement center and a middle school. The explosion killed 15 people, and hundreds were injured.

About 140 homes were damaged or destroyed. The Insurance Council of Texas puts insured losses for this disaster at about $100 million. The total includes insurance payments for West Fertilizer.

Adair Grain, parent company of West Fertilizer, has $1 million of liability insurance on the site—no excess or umbrella coverage. The coverage was provided by a subsidiary of Crum & Forster.

Subsidiaries of W.R. Berkley Corp. filed suit against Adair shortly after the blast, alleging negligence. The Berkley companies insured individuals, businesses and churches in the small, rural town of about 2,800.

Berkley’s attorney, Paul A. Grinke of McCathern in Dallas, previously told PC360 the lawsuit was filed in order to "have a judge to go to" for an order like an injunction if, for any reason, the insurers were not allowed on the site to conduct an investigation. Insurers needed to wait for authorities to complete their investigation before starting one of their own. Insurance teams have been allowed on the site, but only to take pictures, Grinke says.

Grinke could not immediately be reached for comment.

Robert Champion, ATF special agent in charge, says investigators ruled out many causes but several could not be eliminated: the electrical system, a golf cart and arson.

About a week ago the Texas Department of Public Safety said a criminal investigation has been launched into the explosion. The announcement came shortly after a West paramedic was arrested for possessing the ingredients of a pipe bomb. However, authorities have not linked the man to the explosion.

The ATF says it has spent nearly $1 million on the scene investigation--$500,000 on rentals of heavy equipment to excavate the facility.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office says it continues to investigate the deaths of a dozen firefighters who responded to the fire at the plant.

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