International spotlight on small Texas town

Posted Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Editor's note: The original version of this report put the explosion on the wrong day. It has been corrected.

WEST -- Until just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, most outsiders knew little about West except for its richly deserved reputation as an oasis on the Interstate.

Each day, hundreds of nomadic motorists veer off I-35 to refuel at the Czech Stop and load up on kolaches and other goodies.

But after an explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant Wednesday night, the diminutive Czech community was plunged into the glare of international attention, no longer just an obscure pit stop on a busy highway.

President Barack Obama offered prayers and federal aid. International news crews streamed into town to provide nonstop coverage. Condolences, donations and volunteers poured in from across the country.

The disaster -- which leveled dozens of homes, injured more than 160 people and claimed an undetermined number of fatalities -- came near the end of an already somber week that began with the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

The Czech Stop, the 24/7 bakery and service station that perpetually does a booming business, was again packed with customers Friday. But there was a somber touch that reflected the tragedy.

"Everybody is just devastated," said manager Beverly Nunley.

"We're just trying to keep everybody together. We stayed open and we're here for them -- and they know it," she said.

A sheet of paper was taped in front of the cashier with directions on where to donate. At one point during the morning, two students from Waco's Baylor University dropped in to ask where they could volunteer to help.

Retired Brig. Gen. George Brinegar, who directs the community service group that coordinates support for West residents touched by the disaster, said his organization has received "a tremendous outpouring" of donated goods from diapers to blankets.

"It's just been unbelievable," he said.

"Home Depot stayed up all night with us last night --kept their stores open in Waco. Starbucks has brought us more coffee than we could ever drink. Waco Meat Service has provided a lot of meat. Pizza Hut has provided a lot of pizza."

The U.S. diplomatic service has also called to extend condolences from at least a half-dozen countries, Brinegar said. "Most of these people don't even know the location of West -- but they certainly cared."

Czech heritage

Named for the city's first postmaster, the city was founded in 1892 after German and Czech immigrants settled the fertile agricultural region. With a population of about 2,800, it prides itself on its Czech heritage, evident in the town's Czech restaurants and the Czech and Polka Festival on Labor Day weekend.

"We're all just a big family," said businessman Jim Kolacek, whose family was among West's earliest generation.

Twenty miles to the south in Waco, more than 100 mostly young people lined up outside Carter BloodCare waiting to give blood to victims of the explosion.

"There's not much else we can do at this point," said Jenny Howell, a 38-year-old graduate student at Baylor who often goes to West for its famed kolaches. Her reaction to the explosion: "Like everyone one else -- just complete shock."

Brad Cooper, a 43-year-old director at Dell Computers in Austin, waited farther back in line and recalled growing up in West.

After learning of the tragedy in his boyhood hometown, the 1988 West High School graduate stayed up all night watching TV news coverage and then left for West about 9 a.m. with donations of clothes, water and toiletries.

Jim Havens, the Waco/Central Texas director of operations for Carter BloodCare, said donors were waiting outside when the center opened at 9 a.m. By late morning, the line extended from around the corner into the waiting room, where more than 50 people stood elbow to elbow waiting to be called.

Rushing to help

Representatives of various state and federal agencies rushed into West to assist victims and investigate the explosion. News correspondents who just a few hours earlier assumed that West Texas was a geographic region of the nation's second-largest state also descended on the town.

Serge De Marre, a Houston-based correspondent for a Brussels TV station, had been in Boston covering the marathon bombings when he got a late-night call Wednesday ordering him to divert to Texas.

Had he ever heard of West? "No, never," he admitted.

But by midmorning Thursday, he was in Texas cranking out Flemish-language stand-ups. "They said, 'This is huge,'" he said in describing the reaction of European news managers.

The media headquarters was in a livestock auction barn just off the Interstate on the south end of town. Satellite trucks and rent cars crowded the parking lot. An earthy barnyard aroma still lingered from auctions past.

All 70 rooms at the town's only hotel -- the Best Western Czech Inn -- filled up quickly with a mix of guests that included media, first responders, volunteers and townsfolk who were left homeless after the disaster.

Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, arrived in town and toured the destruction area with other officials.

"You have a war zone," he said. "That's what it looked like."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.


Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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