Three years after an earthshaking explosion at a fertilizer plant north of Waco left 15 people dead and crumpled scores of nearby buildings, federal investigators on Wednesday labeled the fire that led to the blast a “criminal act.”
No suspects have been named and no motive has been determined, but investigators say arson was the cause of the initial fire at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17, 2013.
The news, another blow for a small community still in recovery, comes as the city sues several companies related to the plant and could impact its ability to claim damages.
Investigators came to their conclusion after a $2 million investigation that involved interviews with more than 400 people, said Rob Elder, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent, at a news conference.
The investigation is “headed in the right direction,” he said. But investigators are also seeking the public’s help; the ATF announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to arrests in the case.
Elder declined to say what led investigators to determine that the fire had been intentionally set.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara expressed confidence that the announcement will generate helpful leads.
“A lot of crimes are solved several years out,” McNamara said. “I think it’s solvable.”
$100 million in damage
The explosion in West caused more than $100 million in property damage in the town of about 3,000, which is 120 miles north of Austin. Twelve of the dead were firefighters or other first responders. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and an apartment building and a middle school were damaged.
The disaster has spawned a series of lawsuits and led state lawmakers to consider new regulations for fertilizer plants.
“Without a doubt I can tell you that the people of West are incredibly resilient, but this has to be a very tough blow,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “It’s one thing to think this might have been an accident. It’s another to know it could well be of an intentional criminal act.”
The city of West sued the fertilizer company, the manufacturer of the fertilizer and shippers of the fertilizer for damages. (The fertilizer company had $1 million in liability coverage — not nearly enough to cover the damage to the community.)
West has “suffered catastrophic loss and damages,” says a February 2015 court filing. “This includes damage to many of the roads as well as the sewer and water system. Damages to the infrastructure (roads, buildings, homes, property, sewer and water) have also led to a diminution in property values. This has also resulted in loss of tax revenue.”
Attorneys for the defendants in that suit said they had no comment.
At least one defendant — Illinois-based CF Industries, which sold the ammonium nitrate to the West facility — has said in pleadings that a criminal act committed by an unknown person would excuse it from liability.
In a statement, lawyers for West said that despite Wednesday’s announcement about the fire, “the ATF did not investigate what exploded, why it exploded or who knew that it could explode. All of that is the subject of civil litigation to be heard by a McLennan County jury.”
The West Fertilizer Co. plant had been the scene of fairly regular criminal activity before the explosion, likely related to methamphetamine production, according to a 2013 Reuters investigation.
Police reports and 911 dispatch logs showed there were at least 11 burglary reports and five separate ammonia leaks since 2002. Anhydrous ammonia, quickly ruled out as a cause of the explosion, was stored as a liquid gas at the plant and is an ingredient in methamphetamine.
Purdue University agricultural and biological engineering professor William Field, an expert on fertilizer safety, told the American-Statesman that while anhydrous ammonia has long been prized by cookers of methamphetamine, the fire at the West Fertilizer plant didn’t carry the obvious hallmarks of anhydrous ammonia theft.
Most thefts, he said, occur under the cover of darkness; the West fire began during the early evening. And anhydrous ammonia thefts don’t normally spark fires, though he said anhydrous ammonia thieves do occasionally try to create distractions for law enforcement as they flee.
The city has been rebuilding: Among the projects are a new playground to honor firefighters killed in the blast, a nursing home and a high school and middle school campus.
“West is a resilient community,” West school Superintendent David Truitt said. “All day, every day, we take care of and support each other. This news does remind us of some difficult, past events, even opens some wounds, but we will get through this.”
In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill — signed into law by the governor — that allows fire marshals to enter and examine ammonium nitrate storage facilities and authorizes local fire departments to access the facilities to undertake pre-fire planning assessments.
Despite warnings after the explosion from the Texas fire marshal about wooden storage bins, another bill that would have required noncombustible storage bins for ammonium nitrate died in committee in the 2015 legislative session.
“Our office stands ready and willing to assist local prosecutors in pursuing the potential criminal acts behind this catastrophe,” said David Maxwell, director of law enforcement at the Texas attorney general’s office. “So many law enforcement professionals have already done tedious and exceptional work to present these findings released today.”
On Wednesday, the news from the ATF appeared to bring little comfort to people in West.
Even though the city has rebuilt, the wounds are “more psychological than anything,” said Robin Waters, owner of Blessings Christian Gift Shop. “People are still hurting from it.”
His gift shop, a little over a mile away from the plant, had about $1,500 in damage.
The finding of criminal activity “is not going to change things,” said Waters, who said three of his high school classmates were killed in the blast. “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s done.”
Ongoing West coverage
This is the latest in a series of in-depth reports by the American-Statesman on topics surrounding the West plant explosion. Previous stories chronicled the disaster’s impact on town residents, provided a detailed look at inspections of West Fertilizer Co. through the years and identified 16 similar plants in Central Texas and statewide.