13 in 2013: Tiny West battles pain, controversy as it rebuilds after blast

Posted Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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One in a series of stories recalling the biggest local news events of 2013.

Parker Pustejovsky is only 5 years old.

But like many in West, the kindergartner wanted to do his bit to rebuild this traditionally Czech community, where kinship and generations of friendships made the Central Texas city remarkably resilient after an April 17 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, destroyed 120 homes and damaged 200 others.

Parker’s father, volunteer firefighter and City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, 29, was among those who died.

One day this summer, Parker suddenly called out from the back seat of his grandmother’s car.

“GiGi, I have a project,” he announced.

What sort of project? she asked.

“I want to rebuild the park,” he said, speaking of the damaged green space near his grandparents’ home, which was destroyed in the blast.

Parker often played in the park, the city’s only one, while visiting his grandparents. The blast damaged many trees and wrecked exercise equipment.

The ground is befouled with glass and debris from the disaster, requiring several inches of dirt to be scraped and removed.

Would he sell T-shirts or barbecue sandwiches to raise money? his grandmother queried, humoring the child.

“I want to sell hot dogs.”

Carolyn Pustejovsky, “GiGi” to her grandson, gently explained the reality of such a well-meaning undertaking, saying it would take a heck of a lot of frankfurters, even in sausage-crazed West.

But Parker, who had heard his father discuss numerous civic projects at home over the years, was adamant, she recalled. And the timing was right for a simple concept that could focus a grieving community on something positive yet connected to the tragedy.

Word quickly spread.

In July, Parker’s Park Project kicked off a hot dog sale on the City Hall grounds, hoping to raise maybe $2,500 in $1 donations.

The total came to $83,000.

“Some people were handing over $100 bills,” Carolyn Pustejovsky said.

And more was coming. Individuals and companies offered to provide sprinklers, electrical work and playground equipment.

Austin offered 15 18-foot trees, but they were turned down because the city wasn’t ready to receive them, Carolyn Pustejovsky said.

In all, $125,000 in cash and $100,000 in donated equipment and pledged labor came in, she said.

But the city of 2,800 had other ideas for the park, she found.

West isn’t immune from small-town politics, and Parker’s campaign, as developed by its adult supporters, would soon meet a challenge from the mayor and the City Council.

Caring neighbors

Neither is West immune from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A furnished trailer parked discreetly in the alley behind a 110-year-old saloon building was loaned by the Salvation Army to serve as a mental-health counseling center.

People can slip in for appointments without the stigma of being seen by neighbors or relatives, said Karen Bernsen, who headed the umbrella group West Long-Term Recovery Center until she resigned in mid-December after only a few months.

The center, which has faced criticism for how long it took to distribute funds, hands out supplies, offers advice, and coordinates groups including the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, local volunteers and even out-of-town attorneys.

West might have seen fewer PTSD cases than expected, said a Baylor University professor who is dealing with the aftermath.

Jim Ellor, who teaches social work and is an ordained Presbyterian minister, cites several factors for West’s resilience: a genuine friendliness, a deep tradition of helping one another and a long-established churchgoing habit — about 1 in 2 identifies with a church in town.

“Relationships here matter,” said Ellor, who is working with both caregivers and researchers. “The fact is that this is a community where people support each other well.”

Among other things, a summer-long program helped children discuss the trauma, and a workshop dealt with compassion fatigue. Another workshop, on “caring for the caregiver,” is planned.

Pamela Stover, a licensed social worker and registered nurse doing trauma counseling, offered other theories on why emotional problems might be lower than expected.

“The people of West are very stoic, very much like the World War II generation. Maybe it’s faith that this Czech society has an ability to bounce back from disaster,” she said.

“And they have real empathy for their neighbors. They’d say, ‘I had part of my home damaged, but my neighbor lost everything or lost a relative. So I really don’t need that help. My neighbor does.’ Then if you go to the neighbors, they would say, ‘I’m all right, but this other neighbor had it worse.’ 

But Ellor predicts lingering problems in particular quarters, including first responders, who made up so many of the victims.

“There are some profound gaps — the Fire Department and the EMTs,” Ellor said. “There is a grief process there. And all of that is amazingly normal. It doesn’t make it hurt less. I would be more alarmed if it wasn’t there.

“On the whole, this community is doing well,” Ellor said. “It’s a very strong community that will rise above this to a new normal.”

Long nightmare

For Lesley Corvin, a single mother who lived near the blast site, the problems just keep coming.

On the evening of April 17, Corvin, 38, first thought that a small plane had crashed into her 1,200-square-foot home. She and her son were watching TV when they heard a brief rumble and a boom “louder than anything I had ever heard.”

“I ran outside expecting to see fire coming out of my roof,” Corvin said. “When I looked up, I saw this giant mushroom cloud. I thought, ‘Oh my God! We’re being bombed.’ It looked like Hiroshima.

“We ran to a neighbor’s house, and the kids hid under the bed. I tried to call 911, but the lines were all tied up.”

Later, she returned in her pickup and grabbed her guitar, her laptop, a box of family pictures and her mutt, Pixie.

At first, the problems were solved like clockwork.

A high school friend from Denton happened to be in town with a Fort Worth disaster recovery and storage company. He quickly came to an agreement with her insurance adjuster. The friend said packing, storage, cleaning and the return of her home’s contents would run about $20,000.

Corvin was surprised with the quick insurance agreement because, aside from her $11,000 grand piano, she valued the rest of her belongings at about $2,500.

That was in May.

But when the bill came in at $49,000, the insurance company balked.

For more than seven months, Corvin and her 10-year-old son were without their belongings. When the restoration company returned them, the furniture was still covered with dust from the explosion despite a $13,046 cleaning charge.

Expensive boxes held few belongings. Labor for packing and returning the belongings totaled more than $8,000.

The company did not respond to three messages left by the Star-Telegram. Corvin said her high school friend hasn’t returned her calls, either.

Only after Corvin learned of attorneys offering to help, pro bono, did she get action. McKinney attorney Mark Underwood, who is also representing Corvin for an eventual fee for her hearing loss, contacted both companies. Her goods were finally delivered in mid-December. She doesn’t know what her insurance company paid.

Now, however, she has bigger problems. The insurance company has declined to pay for damage to her $61,000 house, quoting a structural engineer’s report that foundation problems predated the explosion. Contractors declined to repair cracks in the wall because of what they told Corvin was blast damage to the foundation and cinder-block walls that would only reappear.

“It’s technically inhabitable, but I don’t think it’s going to collapse on us. I can never sell it like this,” said Corvin, who works from home as a medical transcriber. “I’ve lost my investment.”

Her insurer offered a settlement that won’t go far, she said.

“They probably think that I’m a single mother who would take a $10,000 check and jump for joy. I haven’t cashed it,” she said.

“Ten thousand dollars doesn’t do any good if my house is not livable.”

Emotional response

The Rev. Boniface Onjefu arrived in West two years ago as assistant pastor at the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption. It was his first venture abroad from his native Nigeria.

A good number of the town’s churchgoers are Catholic, and a large percentage are of Czech descent. The small African-American population in town is Protestant, said Onjefu, who is learning West’s ways and picking up Czech phrases such as “ Jak se máš?” (yahk seh MAA-sh) — “How are you?”

Like others in West, he didn’t think twice about helping out when he heard the fertilizer operation blow up.

“I had just finished Mass,” he said. “I jumped into my Ford Taurus and rushed to the nursing home. It was like a war zone.”

For hours, he helped evacuate elderly residents of the badly damaged building, not far from the plant, over to the football field.

Onjefu still marvels at the response to the tragedy, both at home and from as far as Australia: “Even people who lost their homes helped store relief goods or feed first responders.”

He said $4 million in donations poured in, “but the need was $100 million.”

Emotional outbursts erupted at community meetings, where victims complained of a slow response.

“You could feel the anger. They blamed my boss [the Rev. Ed Karasek], the mayor and the chairman of the relief committee.”

“It’s going to take patience, and some people don’t have patience,” said Michelle Pavlas, who works as the cashier at her sister’s restaurant, the Czech-American.

“Those who were patient and went through the process got checks to pay vendors,” Onjefu said. Still, some have had to wait six months or longer.

Few in West, however, will publicly criticize the owner of West Fertilizer Co., 83-year-old Don Adair, or the people who ran the facility for him.

Among other things, the company failed to inform the Homeland Security Department that it was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate; it was supposed to report anything over 400 pounds.

Six months after the explosion, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found two dozen serious violations and is seeking a $118,000 fine, according to The Associated Press.

The plant had seemingly fallen through regulatory cracks at the state and federal level. OSHA hadn’t inspected it in 28 years.

Onjefu cannot get over the lack of street-level outrage.

“I am really, really surprised,” the African priest said. “In Nigeria, there would be ‘jungle justice’ — they’d lynch the person.”

Bernsen, the former recovery coordinator, summed it up this way: “Everybody is in agreement that it’s a tragic accident. But no one is pointing a finger. The Adair family is very respected and liked.”

Not everyone exhibits such cheek-turning equanimity. Carolyn Pustejovsky, who works with Onjefu at the church, said that some people do blame Adair and that she is one of them.

“Are people bitter about it? Yes, they are. But they don’t dwell on it,” she said. “No one knew how much [ammonium nitrate] they had over there, over the legal limit and stored in wooden bins. I didn’t know.

“My house was a block from there. It was demolished, and the explosion totaled my 2013 Ford Explorer as I was driving down North Reagan.”

Adair declined to be interviewed. His public relations consultant, Dan Keeney, said in an email that Adair remains in West.

The octogenarian’s actions are scrutinized by some townsfolk.

“I haven’t seen him, but he did come to the funeral home to view the bodies,” Pustejovsky said.

Twelve lawsuits have been filed against the company.

Even decades of friendship didn’t prevent Mayor Tommy Muska from having the city sue Adair’s company, along with the supplier of the ammonium nitrate that exploded 52 minutes after a fire broke out.

The suit accuses Illinois-based CF Industries of providing insufficient safety information to West Fertilizer and says the ammonium nitrate it sold “was unreasonably dangerous and defective.”

Adair, Keeney said, declines to comment on the lawsuits, but CF Industries calls the claims baseless and said it will seek a dismissal of the suit.

Muska, an insurance broker, said the fertilizer company had just $1 million in coverage.

Premiums are high for the industry, but the mayor said he would have expected Adair to have at least $5 million in coverage.

CF, a publicly traded corporation and a major supplier of ammonium nitrate, is heavily insured, he said.

“I don’t like suing anyone, and Don Adair is as sweet a person as you can find,” Muska said.

But the city has to do what’s needed to repair what, at last count, is $15 million in infrastructure damage, he said. (Total private and public damage, not including injury and loss of life, could reach $100 million; the city reportedly lost $29 million in taxable value.)

“And we don’t yet know how the sewer system’s old clay pipes have suffered,” Muska said. “FEMA won’t cover water pipes. How do you prove they were not leaking before?”

Little regulation

Volunteer firefighters, including Parker’s father and an employee of West Fertilizer, rushed to battle the blaze.

When it was learned that they were dealing with hazardous materials, they were ordered to get back. Joey Pustejovsky’s fire engine couldn’t budge because it was still connected to a fire hose, his mother said.

He had climbed out to unhook it when the explosion occurred. The other firefighter in the truck survived.

Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said the investigation into the disaster’s cause is ongoing.

What is known, he said, is that fire spread from a building to a plywood-sided bin holding tons of ammonium nitrate, a white-pellet chemical mixed on site with other materials to create customized fertilizer for area farmers.

“We know where it started, in the seed room,” Connealy said. “It could have been the golf cart or the golf cart charger or an electrical fire or an incendiary. We haven’t ruled out an incendiary — as in, someone started the fire.”

A volunteer paramedic, Bryce Reed, 31, who was interviewed on TV as a first responder reassuring the community after the explosion, was sentenced to 21 months in prison in early December for making a pipe bomb that is not connected to the fertilizer blast.

Like many small towns, West has no fire code, said Connealy, whose office has been holding public meetings statewide to try to persuade local and county authorities to create codes.

Even if West had one, its mayor noted, the fertilizer company’s property lies half in the city, half on unincorporated land.

The part of the plant that held the ammonium nitrate, Muska explained, is beyond the city limits.

A park controversy

Muska, a ruddy-cheeked and generally jovial man, can turn deadly serious and blunt.

The mayor has been sorely tested by the disaster and a community that can come together quickly, snipe at one another and authorities, then get back to business.

One thing is certain: The fertilizer plant will not be rebuilt anywhere near the town.

It should be moved out in the country, farther toward Abbott to the north “and not let a city grow up around it,” said Muska, who is recovering from painful back surgery.

The mayor envisions an industrial park on the site, home to businesses without combustibles.

“We should have learned from Texas City,” he said, referring to the 1947 fertilizer ship explosion that killed at least 581.

Muska doesn’t need another controversy. But Parker’s Park Project has become one.

Carolyn Pustejovsky doesn’t cloak her displeasure with Muska and the City Council, which she accuses of trying to thwart plans from a Dallas architect to make over the city park with Parker’s Park Project funds.

In mid-December, the council received its own plan, this one from a Plano landscape architect. It includes several walled memorials, reconstructed tennis courts and a space for public art, which Muska would like to see fashioned from debris left by the explosion.

A public meeting will be held soon, he said.

Pustejovsky said she feels betrayed by the mayor. “He gave us his blessing to hold the fundraiser,” she fumed.

Yes, Muska responded, wearily, “I gave the go-ahead to sell hot dogs.”

The mayor said: “Parker started out with a dream of rebuilding the city park. That’s been mutated where the adults now say they should have the right to design the park.

“As an example, they don’t realize that FEMA is going to pay $715,277.73 of the $824,000 to rebuild the tennis courts.”

That would be lost under the Parker plan, he said.

“We are going to rebuild the park, and they can use their donations and come up with ideas for the jungle gym,” Muska said. “They must understand: The city owns the park, not them.”

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter

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