Chemistry professor speculates on West explosion - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Chemistry professor speculates on West explosion

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The how and why of the West explosion are still unclear, but at least one East Texas chemistry expert says there are two possible scenarios. One in which the firefighters themselves may have unknowingly contributed to the blast, not knowing that some chemicals at the plant may have become explosive after coming in contact with water.

LeTourneau University chemistry professor Dr. Gary Deboer says a number of combined chemical factors could have caused the West plant explosion.

"You always need the right conditions for an explosion. What we have there was ammonia or NH-3. It's a liquid. I suspect there were some other primary reaction that reacted with the ammonia that produced secondary products that were the source of the larger explosion," Deboer says.

The chemical anhydrous ammonia is one factor. The very water crews that doused the flames with at the West fertilizer plant could have created an explosive element.

"You could mix ammonia with the water from the fire department, then it becomes ammonium hydroxide , be very reactive, possibly explosive. If water is a contributing factor to the chemistry that would cause additional explosions," he says.

Big Sandy firefighters are looking at what they can learn from West.

"Dangerous materials, hazardous materials ... you need to at least have a meeting with that company and discuss what products they have there and try to get a manifest of what they have there so you'll know what you're going into," says Big Sandy VFD Assistant Chief Chad Decuir.

And other chemicals could have had a part in the reaction.

"If they had some chlorine product in this plant as well, they could mix and form hydrogen tri-chloride which is a known explosive," Deboer says.

But hindsight doesn't decrease the loss for firefighters.

"It just breaks your heart to hear something about fellow firefighters," Deboer says.

Other fire departments we spoke with today say they want to wait for the facts of the investigation, to see if fighting the fire actually contributed to the explosion.

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