Investigators: 2013 West fertilizer plant blast a 'criminal act'

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A deadly 2013 fertilizer plant blast in West, Texas was a criminal act, investigators said Wednesday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives made the stunning announcement during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The ATF said the initial fire which caused the blast was “incendiary,” meaning it was set.

"We have eliminated all reasonable accidental and natural causes," said special agent Robert Elder. "This was a criminal act."

The fire at the West Fertilizer Company was reported 18 minutes before the facility exploded on April 17, 2013. The ammonium nitrate blast killed 15 people, including 10 first responders and two volunteers who had gone to the location to fight the flames. In addition, 200 people were injured.

The explosion stripped the roof, walls and windows off a nearby apartment complex and dozens of other homes and buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. It registered as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake on seismograph equipment and left behind a crater at the plant nearly 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

Phil Calvin cringed with anger after news that the fire that led to the deadly explosion that killed his son was intentionally set.  

“The extended families of people that were lost, it affected a lot of people,” Calvin said. So yeah, it makes you mad.”

Robert and Betty Neill have lived in West for 46 years. She was watching the fire burn when the plant exploded.

“It was just a big old like a mushroom, red flames in the air all around us,” they said.

April Houston heard the explosion in Rio Vista 40 miles away. She now lives across from the bare patch of ground where the fertilizer plant used to be.

“These days should be surprising,” said Houston. “Lot of hateful and evil things that people try to hurt everybody. I cannot fathom anybody's reason to do that."

On the first anniversary of the explosion an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that the blast was preventable. That report also placed blame for the explosion on the fertilizer company, as well as federal, state and local regulators who investigators said had not taken necessary safety precautions.

Federal regulators had previously issued a report that found inadequate emergency response coordination and training and careless storage of potentially explosive materials contributed to the blast. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board adopted recommendations that federal regulators set higher standards for safe handling and storage of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate.

The ATF said it never stopped investigating the case. In fact, agents from West to Washington D.C. for the past three years have been working to answer the question of how the explosion and fire started.

While agents were on the ground in West, they were also in the lab at ATF’s fire research laboratory in Maryland recreating the fertilizer plant.

“Explosive guys that were down there for 50 plus days straight working the scene trying to find little pieces that we could find to see if in fact it was a component that you normally wouldn’t find in a fertilizer factory,” said former ATF agent Hector Tarango.

“You had to make sure the equipment that was in the plant is in your research study,” said retired ATF agent Tom Crowley. “So they recreated everything.”

Both of the former agents say while ATF may not be able to pinpoint exactly where or precisely how the fire started, they feel certain whoever is behind the death and destruction will be brought to justice.

 “I think that the moment they deemed it a criminal investigation, there are suspects in mind,” said Crowley. “I believe that once they eliminated the scientific reason that it could have been accidental, I think the focus will be back on those individuals.”

There is a $52,000 available in rewards for information and tips that lead to those responsible for the deadly fire.