By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) - A paramedic accused of possessing pipe bomb components will plead not guilty to that charge and denies any involvement in causing the deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that he was among the first to respond to, his lawyer said on Saturday.
Bryce Reed, 31, appeared in federal court in Waco, Texas, on Friday to face one count of unlawfully possessing an unregistered destructive device.
Authorities, who separately announced on Friday a criminal probe into the blast, said no evidence linked Reed's arrest to the April 17 fertilizer plant disaster that killed 14 people and injured about 200 in the town of West - a point Reed's attorney echoed in his first comments about the charge.
"Let me be very clear, Mr. Reed had no involvement whatsoever in the explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant," his attorney, Jonathan Sibley, said in a statement.
"Mr. Reed was one of the first responders and lost friends, family, and neighbors in that disaster," Sibley said. "Mr. Reed is heartbroken for the friends he lost and remains resolute in his desire to assist in the rebuilding of his community."
Reed was a volunteer emergency medical technician who became one of the better-known faces of the tiny Texas town in the aftermath of the blast. Last month he told Reuters that he helped people evacuate the area when a fire broke out at the plant and went on to assist at the disaster scene after the explosion until he learned a close friend was among the dead.
Federal prosecutors said in court papers on Friday that authorities had found a section of pipe 3-1/2 inches long and 1-1/2 inches in diameter, end caps, fuses and explosive powder this month at a home in Abbott, Texas, a town near West.
The resident of that home, whom they did not identify, told police the components came from Reed, who was arrested on Thursday.
"Mr. Reed vigorously denies those allegations and will be entering a plea of not guilty during his court appearance Wednesday, May 15, 2013," his attorney said.
NO LINK BETWEEN ARREST AND BLAST
Texas officials said on Friday they were launching a criminal investigation into the explosion at West Fertilizer Co, a privately held plant that had supplied fertilizers to area farmers for decades. Authorities previously said they suspected the disaster was an industrial accident but had not ruled out other possibilities.
The state fire marshal's office has said ammonium nitrate stored at the plant detonated in the explosion but the cause of the fire and blast have not been determined.
State officials ordered the Texas Rangers to join McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara in conducting the criminal probe.
The sheriff's office said nothing had been found so far to link the charge against Reed to the explosion, and federal authorities said they would not speculate on any possible connection.
According to an email sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services on Friday, an administrator for West's emergency medical service said Reed was relieved of his volunteer role on April 19. No reason was given in the email for his dismissal.
Dr George N. Smith, medical director for West EMS, declined to comment about Reed's arrest or volunteer status.
Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the health services department, said Reed had no history of complaints or disciplinary action filed against him with the state.
Reed is employed as a paramedic at Children's Medical Center of Dallas but has been on leave since April 3, before the plant fire and explosion, hospital spokeswoman Kay Jackson said on Friday. She declined to say why he has been on leave.
Reed's wife, Brittany Reed, asked for privacy for herself and the couple's 2-year-old daughter. Their home was among many destroyed by the blast.
"I am doing my best to maintain safety for myself and my daughter," she told Reuters in a text message. "I am cooperating fully with law enforcement and have been cleared in any wrongdoing."
Bryce Reed's attorney asked that his family, friends and community not rush to judgment before all the facts of the case were known. Reed is being held without bail ahead of his next court hearing and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
"Mr. Reed has been through significant hardship in the wake of the disaster in West and he has responded and served his community with honor and strength," Sibley said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)