Cause of woman's severe injury at Dakota Access pipeline protest becomes new point of dispute

Sophia Wilansky, 21, who grew up in the Bronx in New York, rested in a Minneapolis hospital bed, her father by her side, recovering from surgery to try to save her left hand and arm after an explosion at a pipeline protest in North Dakota this week.

"From an inch below the elbow, to an inch above her wrist, the muscle is blown off," her father, Wayne Wilansky, said from the hospital, Hennepin County Medical Center. "The radius bone, a significant amount of it, is blown away. The arteries inside her arm are blown away. The median nerve is mostly blown away."

As many as 20 operations lie ahead, Wilansky said, and it was unclear whether she would keep the arm.

Her injury is the most serious to have been reported during months of increasingly acrimonious conflict over the 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which Native American tribes, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, fear would pollute the Missouri River and harm sacred cultural lands and tribal burial grounds.

[A Dakota pipeline's last stand]

The project was delayed in September when the Obama administration temporarily blocked it from crossing under the Missouri River. And this month, President Barack Obama called on both sides to show restraint and revealed that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route for the project.

But Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, told The Associated Press last week that it would not consider a different route. On Wednesday, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, all North Dakota Republicans, urged Obama to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to allow construction to resume.

All the while, the protests have gone on, and the polarization between the police and protesters extended to their sharply differing explanations of how Wilansky was injured early Monday. Law enforcement accounts suggest that fellow protesters caused the explosion; the demonstrators insist the police are to blame.

The clash that led to Wilansky's injury began Sunday night when protesters with homemade wood and plastic shields tried to dismantle obstacles, including burned vehicles and concrete barriers, and push past a long-blocked bridge to the pipeline construction site. They were turned back by officers using water hoses; several protesters were treated for hypothermia.

Wayne Wilansky, who spoke by telephone and checked details with his daughter as he did, said the explosion had taken place at about 4 a.m. Monday, when most of the protesters were gathered around a bonfire near the foot of the bridge.

His daughter and a handful of others were farther up on the bridge, he said, "playing around," using pieces of plastic and wood as sleds to skid across icy sections of the highway, when an officer began firing foam or plastic bullets at her and another person.

"She was backing away as they were shooting her," Wayne Wilansky said, adding that someone from the police lines then threw a device, which he called a grenade, that hit her in the forearm and exploded.

Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol offered a different version of the episode, which he said was being investigated by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

At about the time of the explosion, Iverson said, officers fired sponge and beanbag rounds at three people who had shielded themselves behind a length of plywood near a burned vehicle on the bridge. The three were thought to be acting suspiciously and refused orders to emerge, he said.

Officers saw someone roll metal cylinders to the protesters by the burned vehicle, Iverson said, and then heard an explosion. Afterward, he said, several protesters ran up, pulled a woman from under the vehicle and ran off. Three propane canisters were recovered from the vicinity of the explosion early Tuesday, he said.

Iverson said that officers did not use concussion or flash grenades at any time. Instead, officers used tear gas, pepper spray canisters and what are known as stinger balls, round grenadelike objects that spread tiny rubber pellets to try to disperse protesters, he said.

Wayne Wilansky said that doctors in Minnesota had removed fragments from his daughter's arm that he hoped could be used to find out what caused the injury and to hold someone responsible.

Sophia Wilansky headed to North Dakota around the beginning of November, bringing a subzero sleeping bag and planning to stay through the winter with the protesters, who call themselves "water protectors."

Friends said they were not surprised that Sophia Wilansky would gravitate to the North Dakota protest.

She had also protested the construction by Spectra Energy of a natural gas pipeline in New York. In June, she locked herself to an excavator at a natural gas pipeline dig in Vermont. About three weeks later, she was arrested in Massachusetts after lying down in a trench dug for the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline.

"Every time I talked with her she was doing something new, going to a rally," said Rebecca Berlin, 23, from Yorktown Heights, New York. "She was really plugged in, really passionate."