Investigation into West may be quick

PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press



AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — An investigation should be finished within the next two weeks into what caused a massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed 14 people, state authorities said Wednesday.

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Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told lawmakers during a legislative hearing that his office is targeting May 10 for investigators to complete their probe into the origin and cause of the fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Co. Authorities have not hinted what might have caused the blast April 17 in the rural farming town of West.

Most of the dead were firefighters and paramedics, and about 200 other people were injured.

“We literally have to sift through all the soil — all the items that exploded out of the plant, collect those, try to reconstruct the facility,” Connealy said. “We are well down that path. But (May 10) is an approximate date. Don’t hold us to that.”

Connealy raised the possibility that authorities might never uncover the cause, but expressed hope that a team of 80 investigators that have conducted 300 interviews would make a determination.

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“Everything will be touched. It will be analyzed and it will be looked at,” he said.

Connealy said investigators are combing through a 14.9-acre area and compared the work to an archaeological dig. He said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has so far spent $500,000 on the investigation and expects that price tag to double.

Lawmakers hauled the fire marshal before the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee in the first hearing at the Capitol since the explosion. Leaders of several other state investigative and regulatory agencies also testified about their role monitoring the West plant and similar facilities statewide.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the committee, began the two-hour hearing with a moment of silence for the West victims. He emphasized several times that the purpose of the meeting wasn’t to point fingers but instead learn how the state stays on tops of similar facilities that store dangerous materials.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said that spending more state money on inspections would not have prevented the blast. State environmental regulators had last visited the fertilizer plant in 2006.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers there are more than 1,100 facilities statewide that store ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer plant in West reported in February it could store as much as 270 tons of the chemical.

The explosion has spawned at least six lawsuits, including one from the family of a volunteer firefighter killed in the blast. Also suing are two insurance companies, a nursing home resident and a West couple.

The explosion caused an estimated $100 million in damage.