May 2, 2013 — Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who is leading an investigation into a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, has announced an approximate date of May 10 when the investigation will conclude. The force of the explosion carved a 93-foot crater, blasted through a 3-foot concrete slab floor, and dug down 10 feet into the earth. Investigators point to ammonium nitrate fertilizer as the likely source of the explosion. Because the fertilizer is in high demand during the spring planting season, there may have been hundreds of tons of the chemical on site.
It is possible that the exact cause of the initial fire before the explosion will never be known. The West Fertilizer Company office may have been the source of the initial fire, indicated by the charred ground. However, it is unclear whether the fire spread to ammonium nitrate or whether heat from the fire ignited the chemical.
The ammonium nitrate was stored next to the office in a facility called the Dry Barn, which was served by a rail line. Although officials initially suggested that the railroad may have been involved in the fire, the only rail car was toppled over, which suggests that it was not the source of the explosion.
Other officials reported that two 12,000-gallon tanks filled with highly-pressurized anhydrous ammonia may have somehow caused the explosion when firefighters doused them with water. However, those tanks were shielded from the explosion behind a wall and emerged relatively unscathed. This is strong evidence that ammonium nitrate — not anhydrous ammonia — caused the explosion.
Investigators have also looked for clues in the damaged buildings surrounding the fertilizer plant. The explosion obliterated a house that was located 300 feet away from the explosion. The second floor of a 50-unit apartment complex was more heavily damaged than the first floor. Behind the apartment building, a nursing home also sustained damage, but it was partially shielded by the apartments. The roof was blown off a nearby middle school. Many houses also have serious roof damage that occurred when the roof was lifted and then came crashing down (in a few cases, curtains protrude between the wall and roof) due to the positive and negative pressure of the blast wave.
The investigators are treating the area as a crime scene, although there is no indication of foul play. Investigators are taking their time and treating the probe as an “archeological dig.”
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