WEST, Texas | As word spread of a spiraling fire at this Texas town’s fertilizer plant, volunteers raced to protect families and elderly residents who lived nearby. Then came the deafening explosion.
Stores of ammonium nitrate exploded in a gigantic blast that registered as a small earthquake and sprayed debris miles away. Fifteen people were killed, including 12 volunteer firefighters and others responding to the fire, and more than 200 were injured. The blast caved in homes and schools, and destroyed water lines and roads.
Residents of West, which is recovering but has a long way to go, will mark the one-year anniversary of the blast Thursday with a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m., the exact time of the leveling blast at West Fertilizer Co. Organizers want to honor the past but make clear that “greater things are yet to come,” said John Crowder, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in West.
West was settled by Czech immigrants more than a century ago, and some of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren still call it home. Its Czech bakeries are well-known among drivers on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin. It’s a place where even if residents “don’t know you from Adam, you’re welcome with a handshake and a hello,” said Brian Uptmor, whose brother, Buck, was killed in the blast.
In the weeks and months after the explosion, residents and city officials talked about how to persevere — to “Keep West West.” The signs of physical progress are obvious: Gone are the dozens of wrecked homes with tongue-in-cheek “For Sale!” messages spray-painted on their walls, and about 70 homes are finished or in the process of construction. Two new schools and a nursing home to replace those destroyed by the explosion will soon give displaced students and elderly residents a better sense of normalcy.
Crowder lost his home in the blast and remains in a double-wide trailer purchased by deacons at his church. He’s rebuilding, but with at least one small addition: a Bible, wrapped in plastic, laid with a prayer in the home’s foundation under the living room floor.
“It’ll never be what it was,” Crowder said of his town. “So the next big step that we have to do as a community is create a new normal.”
Other residents also are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.
Payments from the city’s long-term recovery fund, which received about $3.6 million in donations, have been delayed as organizers deal with unforeseen paperwork and federal regulations. The city’s go-to person for that sort of work, City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, was a volunteer firefighter who died in the blast.
“The rest of us had a huge learning curve,” Crowder said.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said he’s closely watching the emotional toll the blast has taken on the city’s 2,800 residents, especially victims who are still recovering.
“A lot of them have suffered some type of post-traumatic stress of some sort,” Muska said. “I am definitely concerned. We are not going to lose sight of that.”
Holly Harris’ husband, Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Luckey Harris, rushed to save other first responders when he saw smoke at the plant. When she didn’t immediately hear from him, she sensed he may have died.
She remains in their home outside West, where the fence now has a metal shield with her husband’s initials above a fireman’s hat. One of her sons remains a Dallas firefighter, and another has since signed up.
Harris and others say they’ve chosen to push forward and not dwell on unanswered questions, such as what sparked the fire or what firefighters knew going in — or what could have been done to prevent it.
“It’s just a choice that we’ve made that we’re not going to be sad,” she said. “I mean, we are sad at times, but we’re going to try to make everything a happy situation and try to get on with our lives.”