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By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) - Prosecutors charged a paramedic, one of the first to respond to a deadly explosion last month in West, Texas, with unlawful possession of pipe bomb components, although authorities said no evidence linked the charge to the fertilizer plant disaster.
Texas state officials also announced on Friday that they had opened a criminal investigation into the April 17 explosion that killed 14 people and injured about 200 others. The state fire marshal's office has said that ammonium nitrate stored at the plant detonated in the explosion but they have not been able to pin down the cause of the fire and blast.
The state Department of Public Safety said the Texas Rangers have been directed to join McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara in the investigation.
Bryce Reed, a volunteer emergency medical technician, appeared in U.S. District Court in Waco, Texas, on Friday, where he faced one count of unlawfully possessing an unregistered destructive device, prosecutors said. He did not enter a plea, said Daryl Fields, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Texas.
Reed was arrested on Thursday. Federal prosecutors said they 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.
However, the McLennan County Sheriff's Office said in a statement nothing had been found to link the charge against Reed to the explosion and federal authorities said they would not make any speculation on the two cases.
"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 sheriff's office said in a statement.
A statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office said: "Authorities will not speculate whether the possession of the unregistered destructive device has any connection to the West fertilizer plant explosion on April 17."
Many homes in the small town of West, near Waco, Texas, including Reed's own, were destroyed in the blast. He said he also lost his closest friend, volunteer firefighter Cyrus Reed, in the incident. Cyrus Reed and Bryce Reed were not related but were so close they considered each other brothers, Bryce Reed said at the time
A call to Reed's cell phone went unanswered on Friday and Reed's wife, Brittany, said in a text message that she could not comment. His attorney could not be reached for immediate comment.
If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.
SURVIVOR OF BLAST
Bryce 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.
Bryce and Brittany Reed said that they were listening to music at their home when they heard the town's siren and jumped into their truck to warn people nearby.
"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 filling their two-year-old daughter's bedroom with shards of glass, Bryce 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."
"There's no words to convey the magnitude of this incident," he said.
Earlier this week, Bryce Reed wrote on his Facebook page that he was "incredibly emotional" and felt he was being attacked by people who had suggested he was profiting from his efforts to honor the fallen firefighters and emergency medical service workers through a number of media interviews he had given since the blast.
"Integrity is so hard, especially when it is attacked. I am so sick of being strong. I am so sick of crying. You try to do the right thing, and get kicked for it," he wrote in a post on Monday. "I am not crazy, I'm lost."
(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Colleen Jenkins and David Ingram.; Editing by Scott Malone, Grant McCool and Jackie Frank)