HOUSTON, TEXAS - More than three years after a fire at a fertilizer plant in central Texas caused a powerful explosion equivalent to more than 7,000 kilograms of TNT, investigators say it was deliberately set.
"We came to the conclusion after we ruled out all reasonable accidental and natural causes, and after the extensive testing that we conducted," said Special Agent Robert Elder of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known as the ATF.
Asked if investigators found any indication of how the fire was started, Elder said he could not provide any details.
"The reason is we want to make sure the integrity of the case is maintained," he said, "so that when we interview someone, they have direct knowledge and are not repeating something we put out in the media."
The massive blast killed 15 people and devastated the Texas town named West. As to the possible reason for setting the fire, Elder would not speculate.
Law enforcement agencies are asking the public to assist by providing any tips they might have concerning who might have been involved. The ATF is offering a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person or persons responsible for setting the fire.
Fire, then deadly blast
The fire started April 17, 2013, in a storage facility at the West Fertilizer Company plant. Around 20 minutes after firefighters arrived to deal with the fire, a huge explosion occurred, killing 15 people, including 12 emergency personnel, and destroying houses, schools, apartment buildings and businesses on the north side of West, which has a population of about 2,800.
John Crowder, pastor of the First Baptist Church in West, told VOA that after hearing the ATF investigation's conclusion, he still has hope that no one had intended such a tragedy.
"What the ATF is talking about is how did that fire get started and, apparently, they have decided that somebody started that fire; I don't think that means somebody intended an explosion necessarily," he said.
Crowder was out of town when the explosion occurred, but arrived shortly afterward to find that much of the central Texas town had been cordoned off.
"I went on in to the community center where they had set up triage and I spent most of the night kind of walking around helping folks there," he said. "But, man, that was surreal. We had almost, but not quite, as many first responders in our town as the total population of our town."
For weeks after the disaster, people in West mourned the deaths of the 12 victims and comforted the hundreds of people who had been injured or had lost their homes. In many cases, people who were left homeless found shelter with relatives or friends, but some left the town and resettled elsewhere. Crowder said some people in the community are still suffering emotional distress from the disaster.
Crowder, who serves on the board of a foundation that distributed money from private charitable donations to people in need as a result of the disaster, said approximately 150 houses have been constructed in West over the past three years. In addition, the city has replaced infrastructure, schools and parks that were damaged by the explosion.
Crowder said the character of the people, many of whom are descendants of Czech immigrants, helped speed the recovery.
"Our recovery has been absolutely remarkable," he said, "these folks are so resilient, so strong, [they have] such a strong work ethic."
As a result of the explosion in West, the state of Texas has strengthened regulations on fertilizer plants, requiring regular inspections by state fire marshals and greater separation of flammable materials from ammonium nitrate, a volatile chemical used as a fertilizer.
A number of lawsuits filed after the explosion at West have been settled in out-of-court agreements, but a trial involving claims against several chemical companies connected to the West Fertilizer plant, which was originally set for next week, has been re-scheduled for July 25.