WACO, Texas – Texas law enforcement officials n Friday launched a criminal investigation into the massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people last month, after weeks of treating the blast as an industrial accident.
The announcement came as federal agents said they had found bomb-making materials belonging to a paramedic who helped evacuate residents the night of the explosion.
Bryce Reed was arrested early Friday by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on a charge of possessing a destructive device, but law enforcement officials said they had not linked the charge to the April 17 fire and blast at West Fertilizer Co.
“It is important to emphasize that at this point, no evidence has been uncovered to indicate any connection to the events surrounding the fire and subsequent explosion ... and the arrest of Bryce Reed by the ATF,” the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said earlier Friday that the agency had instructed the Texas Rangers and the Sheriff’s Office to conduct a criminal probe into the explosion.
The agencies will join the State Fire Marshall’s Office and the ATF, which have been leading the investigation and never ruled out that a crime may have been committed.
“This disaster has severely impacted the community of West, and we want to ensure that no stone goes unturned and that all the facts related to this incident are uncovered,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said.
Sheriff Parnell McNamara said residents “must have confidence that this incident has been looked at from every angle and professionally handled – they deserve nothing less.”
The statement did not detail any further reasons for the criminal investigation and said no additional information would be released.
Reed, meanwhile, was in federal custody.
A criminal complaint unsealed Friday afternoon said he was arrested after McLennan County deputies were called earlier this week to a home in Abbott, about five miles from West, and found bomb-making materials, including a galvanized metal pipe, canisters filled with fuses, a lighter, a digital scale and a variety of chemical powders.
“After further investigation, it was determined that the resident had unwittingly taken possession of the components from Reed on April 26,” said the complaint signed by ATF special agent Douglas Kunze.
An ATF explosives specialist and a chemist examined the items and agreed the “combination of parts can be readily assembled into a destructive device,” the complaint said.
Officials have largely treated the West explosion as an industrial accident, though investigators still searching for the cause of a fire that preceded the blast have said they would treat the area as a crime scene until all possibilities were considered.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office released a statement Friday saying it decided to continue pursuing a criminal probe because roughly 250 leads have developed and more than 400 people have been interviewed.
Authorities have focused on ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used as a fertilizer, but that also can be explosive in the right conditions, as the cause of the explosion.
Reed was one of several paramedics who helped evacuate residents from nearby apartments after the fire erupted and shortly before the explosion.
He had said he was devastated by the explosion, which he said killed one of his closest friends, Cyrus Reed. Bryce Reed eulogized the firefighter at his funeral; the two are not related.
Bryce Reed was working as a West paramedic the night of the explosion, but he was “let go” two days later, according to an email that a regional EMS group sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services.