A year later, the healing continues in West

04/16/2014 10:16 PM

04/17/2014 9:46 AM

Kaden Anderson, 10, is still afraid.

He and his dad were in a pickup together when the fertilizer plant exploded a year ago. The force shattered all the glass in the pickup and blew it across the road, left them dazed and bleeding, glass embedded in their skin and eyes, their hearing damaged.

Interactive photos: West, then and now

“Now he lives his life in fear,” says his father, Brian Anderson. Something as simple as an announcement that students will be released early from school scares Kaden and puts him in a state of shock. He is in therapy.

“It’s been a horrible experience. It sucks,” says Anderson, owner of the Pizza House restaurant in West.

A year’s time is not enough to heal the kind of pain that came when the West Fertilizer Co. caught fire and exploded on the evening of April 17, 2013. Some, like Anderson, are angry. Others are still grieving the death of a son or a father. Even for those who didn’t lose a loved one or a home, changes in day-to-day life are constant reminders.

Judy Kudelka, who owns a flower and gift shop downtown, has to drive to Waco to see her elderly mom — before the explosion, she could stop by West Rest Haven several times a day. The home was destroyed and its residents dispersed, some to live with family and others to nursing homes in Waco.

The town’s children are still attending public school in portable buildings, and there is nothing but empty space where schools, the town nursing home and many homes once stood.

The rest home physician, Dr. George Smith, is seeing patients in a former bridal shop.

His bloodied face on television was the first many people knew of the tragedy. By the time he was interviewed on the night of the blast — first on camera by Waco NBC affiliate KCEN and later on the phone by CNN — he had helped save many lives and almost lost his own.

While some faulted Smith at the time for putting the fatality count at 60 to 70 (the final total was 15), he says he gave the number that the responders were preparing to deal with when he was interviewed. Another possible factor: A building had collapsed on him earlier that evening.

‘I should have been killed’

Smith says he was at home with his wife at 7:29 p.m. when he was paged out to a fire at the fertilizer plant. When they went outside, they saw black smoke moving toward West Rest Haven, the nursing home across the street from his house.

Fearing the smoke was toxic, Smith went to the rest home instead of to the fire and mobilized everyone to move to the back, to the side farthest from the plant.

He was at the front when the plant exploded.

“The building collapsed around me,” Smith says. “There was a super-loud explosion, a big concussion. Everything’s on top of me, and I’m on the ground, like that. It was a millisecond from lights on, everything normal, to literally thrown on the ground by the concussion force. I just crawled out from under it. Nothing was pinning me down.

“I should have been killed.”

The back of the home, where the residents had been moved, was left standing. Had they been in front, it would have collapsed on them.

“He did a huge job,” West Mayor Tommy Muska says.

Families and others began to arrive and started helping residents into cars, pickups, whatever they had, to take them to safety. The standard evacuation plan for the nursing home had called for loading residents onto school buses and taking them to West Fraternal Auditorium.

“There were no school buses and there were no drivers,” Smith says. Nor was the auditorium standing.

Smith next helped move oxygen tanks from the ambulance station, which was near collapse, and went to the incident command post in an open field near Meadow Drive and Jane Lane. He asked how he could help next.

“I didn’t need to be doing hands-on,” he says. “One, I had plenty of people trained, and two, I’d been hit in the head.”

It was then, around 8 p.m., that local television station KCEN approached him for an interview.

“I had no idea what I looked like,” he says, adding that he thought the video would be only local and had no idea it would be broadcast worldwide.

In the next 24 hours, he would be interviewed by both Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper of CNN, as well as others. Smith didn’t get stitched up until 4 a.m. the day after the explosion, and it would be about 11 that night before he finally slept after some 36 hours awake.

Smith’s clinic was destroyed, and his home is still uninhabitable. His son’s home, also near the plant, was a total loss but has been rebuilt.

The doctor is still renting a home. His new clinic should be ready in May, and after that, he says, his contractor will start on the house.

‘Daddy, Daddy, are we dead?’

Anderson and his son both thought they might actually be dead in the seconds after the explosion, he says. They had gone to check out the fire, and Anderson says that once he saw it was at the plant, he quickly turned around to leave. Suddenly the radio in the pickup went silent. Then it hit.

“It sucked everything in on us and blew us across the road in the truck,” Anderson says. “He’s screaming, ‘Daddy, Daddy, are we dead?’ I did not know if I was dead or not.”

Battling smoke, bruised and bleeding, Anderson says, he drove to a spot near the ambulance station in a chaotic blur — he doesn’t remember driving. Someone put Kaden on a blanket, but then word went out that the station might have a gas leak. Anderson says he picked his son up, put the women who were helping them in his truck and drove to a hill.

As for their home, the blast force picked up the slab foundation and twisted it. Even though his home was across I-35 from the plant, it was a total loss.

“The house is gone. There’s just dirt there now,” he says. The home was so badly damaged that it was torn down.

His wife, Shannon, who was there at the time, was all right and the family took shelter in the Pizza House restaurant, which he owns.

“We were just dumbfounded. We didn’t have water. Everything’s blown-up.”

He and his son still have some hearing loss, but Anderson says Kaden’s should fully return.

Anderson says they plan to build a new home on property farther from town but are not keeping their distance because of the blast. He says he just prefers living in the country. A lifelong West resident, he’ll keep his businesses open.

“I just want to get this first anniversary over with and just quit talking about it,” he says. Tears well up in his eyes.

“It’s like a horrible nightmare, and I don’t want to relive it.”

His father’s voice

Carolyn Pustejovsky says she was driving past the nursing home when the explosion lifted her car into the air. After it landed on the other side of the street, her first thought was her son Joey Pustejovsky, a volunteer firefighter, she says.

She and her husband, Joe, knew their son was at the fertilizer plant. They waited at the Church of the Assumption, where she works, clinging to hope that he survived.

“The only great hope we had — the truck he drove, they had made it to the high school,” she says.

It was 8 p.m. the next day before they learned officially that Joey was killed. Pustejovsky says she still expects him to come through the front door.

His son, Parker Pustejovsky, was 4 when it happened. Now 5, he told his grandparents that he hears his dad sometimes, a voice in his head warning him when he’s thinking of doing something he shouldn’t.

He has only lately started talking about his father, Carolyn Pustejovsky says.

When Parker asks to see him, he seems to take comfort in going to the little city park where they spent time together, she says. His dad, who was also the city secretary, had plans to renovate the spot near the baseball field, and Parker is known for his fundraising efforts to rebuild the park.

The first event, which included Parker’s idea of selling hot dogs, netted about $80,000. Another is planned for April 26. (Find details at www.facebook.com/ParkersParkProject.)

His grandparents hope to be in their new home by May. For now, they are living in a space that belongs to a cousin.

Parker lives with his mother (his parents were divorced) in a neighboring town, but he still attends St. Mary’s Catholic School in West and visits his grandparents frequently.

Parker recently told his grandmother that he wants to be a secretary. For a split second, she was puzzled.

And then she realized: He wants to be just like his dad.

‘That gets me every time’

The faces of Joey Pustejovsky and the four other West volunteer firefighters who died that night are on a banner hung on an outside wall of the town fire station.

Volunteer firefighter John Hurtick says the department has three new trucks inside, all donated to replace those destroyed in the explosion. The department, which was out of action for about six weeks, is back to full strength with 30 members, including five new volunteers, he says.

Hurtick can talk comfortably about the explosion until he thinks about the gesture made by the Connally school district, where West children attended classes immediately after the tragedy: To welcome the kids, Connally students and teachers painted classrooms red and black, West’s school colors.

“That gets me every time,” he says, wiping his eyes.

Fire Chief George Nors did not want to comment.

Hurtick, a retired electrician who grew up in West, also volunteers in another role — the one for which West is best known: He has been president of the board of Westfest for decades.

The annual Czech celebration on Labor Day — about half the town is Czech — draws 20,000 and more every year.

It was important for the festival to go on last year, Hurtick says.

“We had it because we felt like we needed to have it,” he says. “We felt like we needed a sense of normal in West.”

The celebration will take place this year, too, he says.

Hurtick says the construction around town is reason for hope. The new West Rest Haven broke ground this month. The old high school was condemned and torn down to make way for a new one. Smith’s new blue office across from the new nursing home site is almost finished.

“There’s a lot of hope, rebuilding, recovery,” says the Rev. Ed Karasek, the priest for 25 years at the Church of the Assumption, where some 1,300 families are members.

“People are still healing emotionally.”

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