On April 17, 2013, at 7:29 p.m., a fire was reported at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas. 22 minutes later, 60 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, causing 15 deaths, injuring 300 people. Of the town’s 700 homes, about 350 were affected by the explosion, including 193 that were destroyed or severely damaged. The explosion produced ground motion equivalent to that of a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The explosion left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
West Fertilizer Co, founded in 1962, is a retail facility that blends fertilizer and sells anhydrous ammonia and other chemical products to local farmers. It stored 270 tons of “extremely hazardous” ammonium nitrate, according to a report filed by the company with the state government.
Dallas television station WFAA reported from helicopters that a roughly three-block area of West appeared to have been flattened. “It’s a lot of devastation. I’ve never seen anything like this,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. “It looks like a war zone with all the debris.”
President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration which authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.” During a press conference President Obama claimed, “Our thoughts, our prayers, are with the people of West, Texas, where so many people lost their lives, some lost their homes, many are injured, many are still missing. All in all, this has been a tough week.”
Chemical safety experts and local officials suspect this week’s blast was caused when ammonium nitrate was set ablaze. However, it should be noted that investigators have never determined how the fire was started, despite unsafe stockpiling. A week after the explosion, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Senate investigators that the company did not disclose its ammonium nitrate stock to her department. The plant was last inspected for safety in 2012, according to a Risk Management Plan filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. According to reports, the plant had been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Despite that, the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do. Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb or more of the substance. Filings in 2014 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on site. Since the agency never received a report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS designed to prevent sabotage of sites. Furthermore, in June 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration further fined the facility $5,250 for violations regarding anhydrous ammonia storage.
On April 22, 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released preliminary results of its investigation into the explosion. The report claimed that the company failed to safely store the chemicals in its stockpile, and that federal, state and local regulations about the handling of hazardous materials were inadequate. In a statement released alongside the report, the board’s chair, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, stated: “The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
By 2015, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 942 regulating storage and inspection of ammonium nitrate and granting authority to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and local fire marshals to enforce such regulation.
Three years later, in 2016, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revealed that the explosion was caused intentionally. All accidental and natural fire scenarios were tested and eliminated, officials said. Their determination was part of an investigation that included more than 400 interviews, a review of witness photos and videos as well as scientific testing at the agency’s fire research lab in Maryland. The ATF is offering a $50,000 reward for information related to the case. Since 2017, the ATF has spent over $2 million on the investigation, one of its largest in history.
Interestingly, in May 2013, Bryce Reed, a paramedic who responded to the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion, was arrested on federal charges over possessing pipe bomb components. Bryce Reed had been “let go” from the West E.M.S. on April 19, 2013, two days after the fertilizer plant explosion. It is unknown why Reed was dismissed from his job. Despite that, Reed became one of the better-known faces of the tiny Texas town in the aftermath of the blast. Reed gave lengthy, detailed interviews to reporters who swarmed the city of West, Texas just days after the fertilizer plant exploded. He had told Reuters that he helped people evacuate the area when a fire broke out at the plant and went on to assist at the disaster scene after the explosion. After the April 17 West Fertilizer Co. explosion, in which 15 people were killed, Reed tried to dispose of the materials after hearing a eulogy for one of the fallen firefighters that mentioned how the deceased and Reed enjoyed blowing things up. A friend, who Reed asked to remove the items, told the police, leading to Reed’s arrest. However, prosecutors did not claim Reed had any role in the explosion which killed 15 people. “Let me be very clear, Mr. Reed had no involvement whatsoever in the explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant,” his attorney, Jonathan Sibley, said in a statement. In December 2013, Reed was sentenced to serve two years in prison.
By January 2018, it was reported that the city of West will receive $10.44 million in settlements with defendants in the litigation around the plant explosion in 2013. The suit claimed the defendants were negligent in selling or distributing the ammonium nitrate fertilizer, that they failed to properly warn of the dangers associated with the handling and storage of the product, and should have never sold the product to West Fertilizer.
The cause of the explosion and the identity of the person responsible remains officially unsolved.