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Cause of Blast in West Fertilizer Plant Explosion Still Unknown

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News

State and federal fire officials say it’s still unclear what caused a fire that led to the explosion at a fertilizer plantin the town of West. The investigation will remain open. Despite many unknowns, residents are trying to move forward.

On North Reagan Street, the only sounds you hear are screeching grackles and the occasional resident returning to what’s left of his or her home.  Nearly every house on this street is destroyed. Windows and doors are blown out. Roofs caved in. Broken furniture is scattered across lawns. There is a stench in the air that originates from a fly covered refrigerator. Someone has written "Do Not Open, Spoiled Meat" on the front.

Exactly one month after the blast, officials offer few answers. At a press conference Thursday, Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy called the cause of the fire undetermined.

“An undetermined cause occurs when the cause cannot be proven to an acceptable level of certainty. This could be due to insufficient information or if multiple causes could not be eliminated," Connealy said.

The three causes not eliminated are an electrical system in the building, a golf cart, and an intentionally set fire. Pieces of a golf cart were found in the seed room where the explosion occurred. Officials say defective golf cart batteries have been known to start fires.  

As the investigation continues, families return to gather possessions that haven’t been destroyed. Don Williams and his wife, Pam stood outside his brothers’ home. They came back for a barbeque pit. Although there are signs that read "No Trespassing," Williams says there have been looters.

"Somebody stole an air conditioner out here. Somebody stole my weights. I don’t understand it, cops are everywhere," he said, leaving his brothers home.

Many people on the street were injured in the blast. Williams says two of his brothers’ neighbors who were outside when the explosion occurred were blinded.

Down the street, Patsy CdeBaca has come back to her home to meet with a FEMA inspector. She and her husband are now living in a new place a few miles away.

“It’s a big house so we got to move the furniture that we got out of here into that house. So we were fortunate," she says. 

As residents pick up the pieces, state lawmakers are demanding more answers. In a statement, state Sen. Rodney Ellis called for a state investigation between legislative sessions. He says leaders must address the fact that local officials didn’t know the amount of chemicals at the plant nor did they have the authority to regulate it. And while yesterday’s press event did not clear up what happened on April 17, West resident Loretta Volcik says it did provide some closure.

“I think that will give some peace of mind to families to know that the fire department has been cleared and they did what they needed to do and that’s a good thing. That’s what they are they’re first responders," Volcik said. Her sister and brother-in-law are staying with her after their home was destroyed in the blast.

But some question if first responders followed the proper emergency protocol for fires at chemical plants. During a hearing earlier this month, some state lawmakers questioned if there should've been more communication between local law enforcement and fertilizer plant officials. 12 of the 15 killed were first responders. 

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