WEST (May 2, 2013)—More than 70 state and federal investigators are conducting a painstaking excavation of the 15-acre site of the deadly West fertilizer plant explosion as they work their way toward the crater left by the last, officials said Thursday.
The force of the explosion at the fertilizer plant destroyed this nearby two-story apartment building. (Photo by John Carroll)
The site remains a crime scene and nothing has been ruled out officials said, as they opened the site Thursday to pool journalists who in turn provided images and information to other reporters.
“This is in no way been considered an accidental incident,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner.
“This is still being worked under a criminal warrant issued by the state courts, and until we have an answer, it will be considered a crime scene,” he said.
Investigators have interviewed more than 370 witnesses and have received more than 200 tips Kistner said, but so far there’s been no revelation about the cause of the explosion that left 15 dead and 200 injured.
“I’ll tell you if we’ve had it, we’d be done,” Kistner said.
“We’re hoping the ‘aha’ moment comes when we’ve got everything put together,” he said.
A team of 65 to 70 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and 12 state fire marshal’s office investigators is conducting what has been likened to an archaeological excavation of the site in search of evidence, officials said.
The team is slowly working its way from outer areas of the site to the blast crater, which measures 10 feet deep and 90 feet across.
“The last thing to be processed will be the crater,” Kistner said.
The site has been broken down into seven sectors, in each of which teams of investigators are using shovels and rakes to shift through what they find.
Kistner says investigators don’t yet know how much ammonium nitrate was at the plant, but said mapping the blast scene will help them figure that out.
“We know there’s ammonium nitrate. Everybody in the world knows we got ammonium nitrate. Beyond that, I don’t know the exact names of all the other chemicals that have been brought in,” Kistner said.
Among the hurdles that face investigators is the magnitude of the damage.
Debris was scattered as far as two miles away from the blast site and damage to homes and buildings in the area closest to the site speaks to the destructive power of the explosion.
Of the 156 homes in the neighborhood, only three are fit for habitation, officials said.
The area was reopened to residents on Saturday for the first time since the explosion.
Residents were allowed to remove valuables, clothing and small items from their homes, but not large items such as furniture, and they weren’t allowed to stay.
Officials said earlier that 70 of the homes in the area north of Spring Street are unsafe to live in, although residents were allowed to enter to retrieve personal items, but 84 more are so badly damaged that residents wouldn’t even be allowed to do that.
In all, there are about 350 homes in the 37-block area of West affected by the massive fertilizer plant explosion.
Residents of the blast-affected area from Oak Street north to Spring Street have been allowed to return to their homes.
The Insurance Council of Texas, an insurance industry trade group, says losses from the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West will likely exceed $100 million.
The explosion at West Fertilizer Co. left a crater 90 feet wide and totaled nearby homes and buildings, leaving 15 dead and about 200 injured.
It destroyed a two-story apartment building, and heavily damaged a nursing home and three of West’s four schools.