UPDATED 7:17am 5/13/13: Criminal Investigation begins into massive explosion in West, Texas

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Updateed 7:17am 5/11/13

Paramedic vocal after Texas blast facing charges

Posted at: 05/11/2013 1:05 AM
By PAUL J. WEBER and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN

(AP) WEST, Texas – Three days after a massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, Bryce Reed climbed onto a coffee table at a local hotel where displaced families picked over donated sweatshirts and pizza. Wearing a navy blue shirt emblazoned with “West EMS,” he gathered the crowd close.

“You’re safe where you’re at,” Reed said, describing an anhydrous ammonia leak inside the rubble at the West Fertilizer Co. plant. “If you’re not, I’d be dragging you out of here myself.”

Hearty applause echoed in the lobby when Reed stepped down. Yet no one had asked Reed to come, and in a town swarming with federal and state investigators _ who had handled all the official briefings and tightly controlled updates _ a local volunteer paramedic relaying such information was a stark contrast. He also gave lengthy interviews to national media while other emergency responders in West declined to talk.

Now he’s again garnering attention, this time unsolicited.

On Friday, Reed was charged with possessing bomb-making material, including chemical powders _ though authorities stressed he hadn’t been linked to the plant explosion. And an email obtained by The Associated Press showed he had been “let go” from the town’s emergency response squad a day before his hotel speech.

His arrest also drew attention because it came the same day Texas law enforcement officials announced a criminal investigation into the April 17 explosion that killed 14 people, including 10 firefighters and paramedics.

Reed was among the most vocal residents after the fatal explosion, freely talking to reporters. However, Reed was no longer part of West EMS as of April 19, according to an email sent by a regional EMS organization, the Heart of Texas Regional Advisory Council, to the state health officials.

In an interview on April 21 outside the Czech Inn, where Reed had spoken the previous day to displaced families, Reed talked about facing his own mortality. He said he’d lost 60 pounds in five months, yet doctors couldn’t pinpoint the source of his ailing stomach despite performing 26 biopsies.

He also described one of the West firefighters who died in the blast, Cyrus Reed, as his brother though the men weren’t related. He said Cyrus Reed worked at Hunting Titan, which manufactured explosives in nearby Milford for oil and gas companies, and would have known the dangers of the ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia inside the plant.

“I will avenge this. This will get right. I don’t care what it takes,” Reed said when talking about what might have caused the blast. “There’s one thing about Texas, that Texans understand: People talk about law and order. Well, welcome to Texas. We believe in justice. I’m going to get my justice. Period.”

Reed’s full-time job was 60 miles away at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, which confirmed Friday he had worked at the hospital as a paramedic since January.

But on the career networking website LinkedIn, what appears to be Reed’s personal page suggests an unusual job history. For seven years, Reed purportedly worked as vice president of a production company that managed music artists on tour. From 2000 through 2002, Reed said he was a systems analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

State health records show he became a certified paramedic in 2005. Following Reed’s arrest, the Department of State Health Services opened a regulatory investigation into Reed’s license and removed him from the roster of the West EMS, spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.

On Friday afternoon in West, several of Reed’s neighbors stood outside near his red brick duplex in a neighborhood less than a mile from the plant where some homes’ windows remained boarded. They said they were shocked about his arrest.

Crystal Le Dane, who lives down the street, said he was a good neighbor who had changed her flat tire and sometimes gave medical advice about her children’s minor injuries.

“I would say he’s an everyday guy. I never saw a red flag,” she said.

Reed grew up in suburban Dallas and said he had lived in West for 12 years. At the Czech Inn the weekend after the explosion, Reed’s wife, Brittany, pulled out her phone and played a video she said was taken just days before the blast of the couple’s young daughter playing with Cyrus Reed, whom her husband credited for saving his life.

Upon reaching the plant, Bryce Reed said, he saw Cyrus’ truck, so he kept on driving because he was confident the firefighter could handle the call. Minutes later, the plant erupted in flames.

When Cyrus’ body arrived at a funeral home three days later, Bryce Reed said he stayed there all night.

“I got to hug him for the last time. He got there at 9 o’clock last night and I was there until 4 in the morning, holding onto my brother,” Reed said at the time. “And telling him I’m sorry for everything that I did.”

WACO, Texas – Texas law enforcement officials on Friday launched a criminal investigation into the massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people last month, after weeks of largely treating the blast as an industrial accident.

The announcement came the same day that a paramedic who helped to evacuate residents the night of the explosion was arrested on a charge of possessing a destructive device, though it is not clear whether the charge is related to the April 17 blast at West Fertilizer Co.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said in a Friday statement that the agency had instructed the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a criminal probe into the explosion.

“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.

McLennan County 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.

Paramedic Bryce Reed, meanwhile, was in federal custody following his arrest on the charge of possessing a destructive device. Reed was booked into the McLennan County Jail at 2:40 a.m. and released before 8 a.m. to agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to jail booking clerk Brandy Gann.

Reed made an initial appearance in federal court in Waco on Friday, but did not enter a plea. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier said he would not release further details until court documents were unsealed sometime later in the day.

Officials have largely treated the 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. 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 has spoken to The Associated Press extensively, and said he was devastated by the explosion, which killed one of his closest friends, Cyrus Reed. The two are not related.

Bryce Reed’s wife, Brittany Reed, declined to comment early Friday.

“I can’t. No comment, no comment no comment right now,” she said before hanging up the phone.

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Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. She can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP