Unexpected twists in case of deadly blast at Texas fertilizer plant

A first responder to the huge explosion last month at a Texas fertilizer plant was arrested Friday for possessing a pipe bomb – but officials aren't linking his arrest to the deadly incident. The probe, however, is now a criminal matter, they said.

LM Otero/AP
Investigators move and look through the debris of the destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, May 2. Texas law enforcement officials launched a criminal investigation Friday, into the massive explosion last month that killed 14 people.

The arrest Friday of a first responder to the deadly April 17 fertilizer plant blast in West, Texas, on explosives charges, is a new wrinkle that may call into question whether the incident that killed 14 people – including 12 firefighters and paramedics – was in fact a tragic industrial accident, as most people in the area believed.

Texas authorities arrested Bryce Reed, a paramedic with West Emergency Medical Services, at 2 a.m. Friday and have since charged him with possession of a pipe bomb. Mr. Reed was among those who responded first to the fertilizer plant explosion and served for a time as incident commander at the site. He was also shown giving a taped eulogy for explosion victim Cyrus Reed at an April 25 memorial in Waco, Texas, attended by President Obama.

Police have neither confirmed nor denied that Reed's arrest is tied to the plant explosion. However, authorities said Friday that the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department have launched a new criminal probe into the incident, with Texas Department of Public Safety chief Stephen McCraw pledging that the state will “leave no stone unturned.”

“Keep an eye on this story, perhaps especially on the federal involvement,” writes Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey. “Until now, no one had intimated that this might be a deliberate act.”

On May 1, officials told a Texas House committee that they had interviewed 300 people and followed 160 leads during the investigation into what happened on the night of April 17. At that hearing, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said the investigation should be complete by May 10 and that the chance remained that the cause would be classified as “unknown.”

On Monday, investigators said they had ruled out weather and natural phenomena as causes of the blast, which happened about 20 minutes after a fire began tearing through a fertilizer and seed building on the property.

The Reed arrest and revelations of a new criminal probe raise questions about criminal mischief, even terrorism, given that the blast occurred two days after two bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring at least 260 others. In the West explosion, which registered 2.1 on the Richter scale, nearly 200 people were injured, and a nursing home, school, and dozens of houses were destroyed or damaged.

Until now, Texas lawmakers had focused chiefly on pinpointing any holes in the state’s regulatory framework for small fertilizer plants that store large amounts of potentially volatile chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia or ammonium nitrate. The latter is the substance that exploded in West and that Timothy McVeigh used to detonate a massive bomb in Oklahoma City in 1996.

The Monitor reported last week that the plant had been a frequent target of thieves, posited to be using anhydrous ammonia as part of the cooking process for homemade methamphetamine. But reports of those thefts had led to few state demands for tighter security at the plant, which lacked even a perimeter fence.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said Friday that residents "must have confidence that this incident has been looked at from every angle and professionally handled. They deserve nothing less."

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