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Explosion in West, TX

Investigators describe West explosion as a wave of destruction

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WEST -- On the grass outside the shredded apartment complex sat several large chunks of concrete, basketball-sized pieces of shrapnel that were sent flying by the force of Wednesday's fertilizer plant explosion.

Officials said the concrete and other pieces of projectile had once been part of the West Fertilizer Co., which exploded about 20 minutes after a fire broke out early that evening.

On Sunday, a handful of reporters and photographers were allowed to see some of the areas that were hit the hardest by the explosion, which killed 14 people - mostly first responders - and injured dozens more.

When the explosion occurred, investigators said the blast radiated outward, slamming into a nearby railroad track berm. The explosion's force was deflected upward by the berm before rushing back down to pummel the apartment complex, a nursing home and West Intermediate School and eventually moving into neighborhoods.

"The easiest way to describe it is think of a wave going out and it may come up and down with it," said Kelly Kistner, said assistant State Fire Marshal.

The destruction from the blast spread over a 37-square-block area of West that was described as a "war zone" by Brian Hoback, the National Response Team leader with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Four torn and twisted metal structures could be seen at the fertilizer plant, but the railroad track berm kept reporters from seeing any activity at the site.

Kristner said investigators have located the center of the explosion, "which is important, because as we conduct our investigation we'll be working from an outer perimeter inward, from the least damaged to the greatest damage. So knowing the seat of that explosion is important."

Kristner said they still don't know where the fire that sent firefighters rushing to the scene started.

Crater being checked

Robert Champion, the ATF's special agent in charge from Dallas, said it would probably be several days before more details could be released about the origin or possible causes for the explosion.

He said investigators are taking a hard look at the crater that was created by the explosion.

"That's what we're going to be doing today and in the next couple of days is getting in the hole and start digging that out and see what transpired to cause this devastation in this area," Champion said.

ATF has about 50 personnel on-site and the State Fire Marshal has 17 personnel. But there are a number of other state and federal agencies at the explosion site, including EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Kistner said investigators were optimistic they would be able to catalogue all of the chemicals that were at the fertilizer company when the explosion occurred but as of Sunday, they do not have that specific information.

"Our priority today is the line of duty death investigation for the firefighters and first responders who lost their lives in this incident," Kistner said. "The line of duty death investigation will be everything from initial response, the command structure on-site down to the tactics that were used."

A quiet Sunday

On Sunday, there were few signs of activity around the nursing home or apartment complex. A few Texas Department of Public Safety patrol cars drove slowly through the streets but it was otherwise quiet. Hundreds of the town's 2,800 residents had attended church services earlier in the day.

Further away from the blast site, numerous homes had garage doors and windows blown out.

"Several blocks we had projectiles or shrapnel that has been found of different sizes," Kistner said. "Smaller pieces have been found blocks away."

Many residences in the blocks closest to the blast appeared to have some structural issues with their foundation and roofs, but investigators said that would be up to inspectors to determine if those buildings were habitable.

The apartment complex was in complete shambles. Its roof was gone. Windows were blown out and support beams had been added to keep it from collapsing.

Piles of debris, much of which had been removed from its units, were stacked around the apartment complex. Most of the debris consisted of wood and scraps of clothing but a floral piece of a mattress could be seen in one pile.

A small slot machine appeared untouched in one damaged unit, resting on what appeared to be a closet shelf. A basketball court closer to the blast site was almost unrecognizable as one goal was barely standing and the other was bent at an odd angle.

Across the street, the nursing home also was heavily damaged, though the roof was still in place in some areas.

Ceiling tiles had collapsed in almost all of the rooms. There were jagged cracks running through the nursing home's brick exterior and a painting was listing sideways on one crumpled wall.

West residents who live closer to the blast site will be able to check out their homes as soon as gas-line tests are completed, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek said.

The town's water supply remains disrupted, Vanek said.

Bill Hanna, (817) 390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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