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Texas responder to fertilizer blast arrested on pipe bomb charge

By Lisa Maria Garza

DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors charged a paramedic, one of the first to respond to a deadly explosion last month in the Texas town of West, with unlawful possession of pipe bomb components, but authorities said no evidence linked the charge to the fertilizer plant disaster.

Bryce Reed, 31, appeared at federal court in Waco, Texas, on Friday, where he faced one count of unlawfully possessing an unregistered destructive device. He did not enter a plea, said Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the Western District of Texas.

Local police said there was no known connection between Reed's charges and the April 17 explosion that killed 14 people and injured about 200 others.

Friday's developments brought no clarity as to what exactly happened the day of the blast that gutted an apartment complex, damaged a nursing home and demolished dozens of homes.

"No evidence has been uncovered to indicate any connection to the events surrounding the fire and subsequent explosion at the West fertilizer plant and the arrest," the McLennan County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

The paramedic, whose home was one of many destroyed by the blast, had recounted afterward in interviews with Reuters how he helped people evacuate the area and went on to respond as a volunteer at the disaster scene until he learned a close friend was among the dead.

He emerged as one of the better-known faces of the tiny Texas town and spoke by video at an April 25 memorial service in Waco attended by President Barack Obama.

A call to Reed's cellphone went unanswered on Friday and Reed's wife, Brittany, said in a text message she could not comment. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Reed, who was arrested Thursday, is being held without bail and is due in court on May 15, according to court papers.

Federal prosecutors said in court papers they had responded to a home in Abbott, Texas, where they found a section of pipe 3-1/2 inches long and 1-1/2 inches in diameter, end caps, fuses and explosive powder. The resident of that home, whom they did not identify, told police the components came from Reed.

If convicted, Reed faces up to 10 years in prison.

CAUSE OF BLAST STILL UNCLEAR

The state fire marshal's office has said that ammonium nitrate stored at the plant detonated in the explosion but it has not been able to pin down the cause of the fire and blast.

State officials on Friday ordered the Texas Rangers to join McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara in a criminal investigation into the blast.

"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," said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Reed told Reuters last month that he had been a paramedic for 13 years and that he had worked in combat zones overseas as a contract paramedic.

He had been employed as a paramedic at Children's Medical Center of Dallas since January 7, hospital spokeswoman Kay Jackson said on Friday. She said he had been on leave from the hospital since April 3, before the plant fire and explosion.

On the night of the explosion, Reed and his wife were listening to music at their home when they heard the town's siren and jumped into their truck to warn people nearby, they said in a later interview.

"Get your kids and go!" the couple said they yelled at residents of an apartment complex near the plant. They said they were about 50 to 75 yards from the plant when the blast rocked their vehicle.

The force of the destructive blast blew the doors off their home and filled their two-year-old daughter's bedroom with shards of glass, Reed said.

"Had she been in there, she'd be dead," he said. "We've lost everything. But my family is alive and that's enough for me."

But Reed lost his closest friend, volunteer firefighter Cyrus Reed, in the incident. The two were not related.

"I can think of no better way to allow my brother to pass on than to take comfort in knowing that he died doing what he loved," Reed said in the video played at the April 25 memorial.

But it appears the losses wrought by the blast and criticism Reed had faced after giving a number of media interviews took a toll on him in recent weeks.

In a series of Facebook posts this week, Reed insisted he had not profited off the tragedy.

"I am broken inside and out and can't take this," he said in a post on Monday. A day later, he followed with, "People I am doing my BEST to hold myself together, but please for the love of God quit picking me apart."

(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Colleen Jenkins and David Ingram.; Editing by Scott Malone, Grant McCool and Philip Barbara)

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