Loftis even analyzed imagery from the scene with former professional investigators to explore the possibility not just that the ammonium nitrate had exploded, but that it may have been aided by the mixing of fuel with the fertilizer pellets—a common and dangerous explosive, and one scenario in which the West explosion might have been a crime.
Throughout, the paper provided a rich mix of coverage, often ahead of the pack. The Morning News broke the story of a new criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and the arrest—of as-yet unclear significance—of a paramedic charged with possessing a pipe bomb. Meanwhile, the editorial page criticized the state for a lack of transparency in providing records of chemicals at sites around the state; it also chided local, state, and federal officials for passing the buck over who had enforcement responsibilities, including what it labeled as the town’s poor evacuation planning. Editorial writer Todd Robberson called for more diligent zoning and more regulation. In the context of careful and wide-ranging reporting, these editorials and columns added to the mix of coverage rather than defining it.
Elsewhere in Texas, the Dallas CBS affiliate reported on April 22 that state officials had visited and inspected the West fertilizer facility frequently, as often as 10 times a year, even at the summoning of the plant manager and the affiliate, and established that the reports of an extraordinary amount of ammonium nitrate on the site were not accurate. The Waco Tribune-Herald, a far smaller paper, was deft on breaking news, particularly on and about the first horrific night, and provided fast updates via Twitter as investigators released their results last week. The paper also published on May 21 a fascinating op-ed by an academic explaining how ammonium nitrate really works, how common sense practices have largely kept the fertilizer from exploding since the Texas City disaster—until now, there has been just one accidental ammonium nitrate explosion explosion at a fertilizer plant in this country since then, an accident in Iowa 20 years ago—and how crime was still a possibility.
Even as investigators released their preliminary conclusions in West last week, more investigations are underway. The federal Chemical Safety Board—notorious for being overworked and slow—will start its own probe, while probes by other state and federal agencies, including the ATF and the Texas Rangers, continue. These investigations deserve sustained, aggressive, careful coverage—reporting and commentary that pushes authorities to identify the responsible parties and take reasonable steps to prevent future tragedies, but does not jump to conclusions.
Of course, it seems more likely that West will now fade from view, and it also seems possible that we’ll never know exactly what caused the blast. It’s tempting, of course, to wish for a clear-cut conclusion to such a terrible event. I asked Mong, of the Morning News, if he had a hunch. He paused for a bit but didn’t take the bait, saying only, “I think it’s still a big mystery.”
Correction: This post originally misidentified the company that owns The Dallas Morning News. The paper is owned, as of a 2008 spin-off, by A.H. Belo Corp., not Belo Corp. The relevant references have been revised. CJR regrets the error.
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