‘It’s almost hard to imagine what we’ve all seen’

Posted Friday, Aug. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go • Westfest hosts a preview party that begins at 5:30 p.m. today on the south end of town, just off Interstate 35 between Hillsboro and Waco. • Westfest opens at 10 a.m. Saturday with a parade, followed by a moment of silence at noon to honor those killed in the explosion. • On Sunday, Westfest opens at 10 a.m. and hosts a polka Mass at 10:15 a.m. • Denton’s Brave Combo has played every Westfest since 1981 and will perform at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. • For more information, call 254-826-5058 or go to westfest.com

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It doesn’t take long for John Hurtick to start reliving the evening of April 17.

Even as he was overseeing last-minute preparations for Westfest this weekend and promising to keep the focus on the celebration of the town’s Czech heritage, Hurtick couldn’t help thinking about the night the West Fertilizer Co. exploded, killing 15 people, including five West volunteer firefighters.

“I knew them all very well,” said Hurtick, president of Westfest. “… It’s almost hard to imagine what we’ve all seen.”

Hurtick, a volunteer firefighter himself, raced to the blast site and tried to help injured firefighters and other first responders.

“I actually drove one of them to the hospital because the ambulance had not arrived on scene by the time I got there,” he said.

Although the explosion’s aftermath still weighs heavily on residents of West, Hurtick said the annual festival — the town’s “unofficial family reunion” — isn’t about reliving the tragedy.

There will be a brief moment of silence when the festival opens Saturday, and first responders who died in the explosion will serve as honorary grand marshals in the parade that begins at 10 a.m. downtown.

“We won’t soon forget those people, but at the same time, Westfest always has and always will be a celebration of our heritage,” said Hurtick, who has overseen every festival since 1981. “And we want to keep it that way.”

For festgoers, that means dancing to a bunch of polkas — even if it’s 100-plus degrees — eating a few kolaches and downing a pivo, the Czech word for beer.

‘They get to build a new house’

On the opposite end of town from the festival grounds, the devastated neighborhood around the fertilizer plant is slowly being transformed. Crews are still cleaning up the blast site, and city officials don’t know what will happen to the property.

Mayor Tommy Muska would like to see the city convert the site into a light-industrial park.

Across the railroad tracks from the fertilizer plant, an apartment complex and the West Rest Haven nursing home, where many people were rescued, have been leveled. Plans call for breaking ground on a 120-bed nursing home early next year across the street from the old one.

As for homes in the area, about 110 have been demolished and about 300 have some sort of damage.

“It pretty much affected the entire north side of the town,” Muska said.

“But I’ve been telling people that lost their homes, they need to look at it as an opportunity. They get to build a new house. They just need to focus on getting that new house — not why it happened.”

Muska, who lives about four blocks from the blast site, said that his house was damaged but that he hopes to move back in about three weeks.

“The back end took the brunt of it because it is facing the fertilizer plant,” the mayor said. “We lost all the doors and windows and the ceiling came falling in, but the roof stayed firm and didn’t buckle.”

Muska’s neighbors, Steven and Stephanie Kucera, were the first residents to move into a rebuilt home. The mayor is counting on the Kuceras to be the first of many.

“I hope we have 50 under some form of construction by Christmas,” Muska said. “That would be huge for the city.”

‘We’re tightening our belts’

The impact on the city’s bottom line has been substantial. West lost $20 million in appraised values and saw its revenue from water sales drop about 60 percent because so many residences have disappeared.

“We’re tightening our belts and going to live within our means, just like any other town that is going through tough times,” Muska said. “We are probably looking at a couple of lean years.”

Karen Bernsen, executive director of West Long-Term Recovery, said the rebuilding will likely take two or three years to complete. And it’s too early to tell whether most residents will build again.

“Many aren’t to the point of making those decisions yet,” Bernsen said. “They’ve got to get further along in the recovery process before they can decide.”

West Long-Term Recovery, the agency created to help residents and businesses affected by the blast, has 411 open case files, but only about 15 families have completed written disaster recovery plans, a key step toward rebuilding.

Bernsen said it’s also crucial for residents to use all available federal disaster relief.

So far, about $4 million has been raised through disaster relief funds, but Bernsen said those dollars won’t be tapped until residents have explored all other sources.

“We have to exhaust those layers of assistance,” she said. “If they skip that, they’re diminishing their ability to recover.”

‘We’re thankful for that’

The impact on the West school district has also been substantial. The intermediate school has been demolished, parts of the middle school have been torn down, and the high school is standing but is not being used because of extensive damage.

The district would like to tear down the high school but is still in talks with its insurance provider, said Jan Hungate, director of administration.

This month, President Barack Obama declared the explosion a “major disaster” after the designation was initially rejected. The declaration should help the district and the city rebuild its infrastructure. The federal government will pay 75 percent of the cost of reconstructing the schools and public facilities.

“It was hugely important,” Hungate said. “We’re thankful for that.”

West students began school this week, and the high school Trojans played their first football game Thursday night on the newly sodded field — the place where many of the injured were taken after the explosion.

“We’ve got the kids back in school, we’ve got our first home football game, and then we’ve got Westfest,” Hungate said. “It’s starting to feel a little more like normal. I had one of my students break into tears on the first day of school, and she just said it was good to be back home.”

For many longtime residents, Westfest can serve the same purpose, Bernsen said.

“Everybody needs a break,” Bernsen said. “This has been a 24/7 process.

“You can’t escape what you’ve been dealing with. But you can put it aside for a weekend.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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