May 9, 2013 — Ammonium nitrate was the chemical fuel behind an explosion at West Fertilizer Company last month, according to the state fire marshal. The disaster killed 14 people, injured 200, and destroyed dozens of buildings in the small farming town of West, Texas. It will likely be several more weeks before investigators find out where the initial fire before the explosion started.
The investigation team has found the epicenter of the explosion and they have also determined that the fire started somewhere in a 12,000-square-foot building called the Dry Barn, where ammonium nitrate fertilizer and seeds were stored. They are combing through the rubble for clues. Finding the source of the fire is the “number-one issue that we’re trying to resolve right now,” according to local fire officials.
The earliest reports after the explosion named another chemical, anhydrous ammonia, as a possible source of fuel. Some speculated that the chemical, which vaporizes and heats in reaction to water, may have exploded when firefighters attempted to extinguish the fire. However, investigators have ruled out this theory. The high-pressure tanks of anhydrous ammonia were partially shielded from the explosion behind a wall.
Ammonium nitrate is also far more explosive than anhydrous ammonia. Ammonium nitrate is a dry chemical that is mixed with chemicals like phosphate before it is added to crops. Because this is the spring planting season, the fertilizer plant likely had a massive amount of the chemical stored in the Dry Barn. Investigators are still working to determine how much of the chemical was on site. At maximum capacity, West Fertilizer Company may have had up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.
Although ammonium nitrate is the logical fuel behind the explosion, no one knows how it exploded. An explosion requires an ignition source, such as a spark, intense pressure, or high heat.
Do I have a Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Lawsuit?
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