April 16, 2014

A baby girl brings joy to a widow of West explosion

Becky Calvin was pregnant when her husband, Perry Calvin, was killed while responding to the fire at the West Fertilizer plant.

Becky Calvin had just put her two sons to bed and was watching television when the loud bang rattled her home.

“My whole house shook,” she said. “I thought the windows were about to break.”

Thinking it was thunder, she glanced outside but saw no signs of storms.

Interactive photos: West, then and now

She thought nothing more about it until a friend called 20 minutes later, asking whether she’d heard about the explosion in nearby West.

“She asked if I felt it because she lived in Ennis and they felt it. She knew I lived so much closer,” Becky said. “I immediately got worried because I knew Perry was over there.”

Perry Calvin, Becky’s husband, had been in West for EMT training when the fertilizer plant exploded, setting off a wave of devastation across the small town and killing 15 people, including Perry.

Perry, 37, a self-employed farmer who worked construction and volunteered for both the Navarro Mills and Mertens fire departments, was just weeks shy of graduating from Hill County College’s Fire Academy, with plans to be a full-time firefighter.

It was a passion that had initially made Becky anxious, but she’d grown used to the emergency calls during their more than 10 years of marriage.

“It was just part of our lives,” she said. “Most of the time, I really didn’t worry about it because he always came back.”

That he had rushed to the raging fire at the West Fertilizer Co. on the evening of April 17, 2013 — in a town where he didn’t volunteer — was just Perry being Perry, she said.

“I called his dad to find out if he knew where the class was being held,” Becky said. “He didn’t, but he figured Perry was probably just in the middle of it all trying to help, that he was so busy that we couldn’t get ahold of him.”

Becky, however, sensed that something wasn’t quite right.

“I felt different. I knew something was wrong because he always, even if he didn’t have time to talk or anything, if I sent him a text, he would just send one back, saying ‘OK’ or ‘I’m OK’ just so I wouldn’t worry,” Becky said. “I couldn’t even get that, so I knew it was more than just him being busy.”

‘He loved kids’

Only a couple of weeks earlier, Becky had emerged from the bathroom with a smile, carrying a positive pregnancy test.

“He was excited,” Becky said. “He loved kids.”

They talked about how they’d be fine with having a third boy but were hoping for a girl this time.

The couple didn’t wait long to share the news with loved ones.

A week after learning of her new future grandchild, Karen Griffis, Becky’s mother, was perusing Facebook in her Tennessee home when she spotted a plea from Perry’s sister.

Has anybody seen my brother?

After turning on the TV news, she linked the urgent Facebook message with the tragedy unfolding in West, which was flashing across her television screen.

Within hours, she and her husband, John, and Becky’s older sister, Bonita, were driving to Texas, scanning Facebook as they traveled, looking for any news on Perry.

“We heard that someone had driven himself to the hospital,” Griffis said. “We thought that might be him. He would. He wouldn’t wait for anyone else to take him. He would just take care of himself. Perry just took care of things.”

Not yet aware that her parents and sister were on the way, Becky was fixated on the nonstop TV coverage of the explosion. Helicopter shots showed fires burning across town, interspersed with the flashing lights of firetrucks and ambulances.

By 5 a.m. the next day, her younger son, Preston, awoke uncharacteristically early, asking his mama what was wrong.

“I said there’d been an accident. Not to worry about it,” Becky recalled.

‘I knew he was gone’

A couple of hours later, a fellow volunteer firefighter who was among those who rushed to West to help after the explosion arrived at Becky’s home and spoke to her in private.

“He said that they assumed Perry was … they knew there were several men down and they figured Perry was one of them because no one could find him,” Becky said.

Becky woke up her older son, Wyatt, and took the boys to her in-laws’ house.

There, she broke the news to her sons and Perry’s parents.

“He was gone. No one verified that for a couple days, but I knew he was gone,” Becky said. “Some of my friends and people would say, ‘Keep hope. He may turn up.’ My sister called hospitals, but I knew. I knew he was gone.”

She was overwhelmed with grief, and fear soon cast a shadow over her.

“When he didn’t come back, I was scared because here I was eight weeks pregnant with two kids,” Becky said. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. It was scary when I think about going through a whole pregnancy without him and then to know that she would never get to meet him.”

Unlike her other pregnancies, this one would not be easy for Becky.

There was a trip to the emergency room when Becky feared she was miscarrying but found out she had a ruptured cyst. She started having contractions in June that continued throughout her pregnancy. In October, she was put on bed rest after going into early labor.

“I was terrified that all the commotion and everything was going to cause her to miscarry because she wanted the baby really badly,” Griffis said. “So did Perry.”

‘He really wanted a girl’

With her husband making occasional trips back and forth to their home in Tennessee, Griffis moved in with her daughter, initially intending to stay until January to be there for the birth and help out for a couple of months afterward.

She remains there today, pushing off plans to leave until June.

“It was just easier to stay and know that my babies were OK,” Griffis said. “There’s a lot of people that would have helped out, but there’s nobody like your mom when you need them.”

Griffis said she’s been impressed and inspired by her daughter’s strength.

“I was always amazed that you could just get up and function,” she recently told her daughter. “It didn’t matter whether you functioned good or bad. You just functioned. You got up. … No self-pity. It was all that life she carried and the boys she was raising.”

Becky said she has steered away from news coverage of the investigation into the fire and explosion.

“I have friends who kept all the newspaper articles and everything for me, but I can’t read them right now,” Becky said. “I have them packed up and one day, hopefully, I’ll be able to look at that stuff, but I’m not there yet.”

What she learned about her husband’s death came largely from friends and the firefighters who worked with her husband.

“When West Fire Department got paged out, the other people from the EMT class went over to help,” she said. “There were four guys that went over to the fire. My understanding is the rest of them went to the nursing home to evacuate. Perry was one of the ones who went to the fire to help, so he was there when the explosion happened.”

She said the baby growing inside of her gave her a focus.

“People would tell me how strong I was. I don’t really feel strong. I just had to go on because I had two kids and I was pregnant,” Becky said. “The pregnancy is probably more of what kept me going because I had to take care of the baby, so I had to eat and I had to sleep. Things that I didn’t want to do, I just knew I had to do because I didn’t have a choice.”

When she learned she was carrying a girl, she felt a mix of happiness and pain.

“When I found out, I was happy but it was very emotional,” Becky said. “I knew he’d never get to see her. He really wanted a girl, so it was bittersweet.”

All Calvin children have the initials P.W., a family tradition.

It was 10-year-old Wyatt who chose his little sister’s first name.

“He actually came to me one morning, and we were talking about names. He was like, ‘I want to name her Presley Wendy,’ ” Becky said. “I said, ‘Well, I like Presley, but I’m not so sure about the Wendy.’”

Instead, Becky went with Wreanne — a name she and Perry had picked out had their second child been a girl.

On Nov. 13, Presley Wreanne was born, weighing 7 pounds, 7 ounces.

‘Hate that he’s not here’

Though they rarely discuss how he died, Wyatt and Preston talk often about their dad, much to the delight of their mother. That Presley will grow up hearing stories about her dad is important to Becky.

Reminders of Perry are everywhere.

A picture of him, wearing a slight grin and a white cowboy hat, hangs on the living room wall. Next to it, another blown-up image shows Perry, then a coach for his church’s equestrian drill team, holding an American flag while riding a horse.

Using swatches cut from Perry’s clothes, a friend made Becky a quilt that she keeps in her bedroom.

There were two shirts, however, that Becky couldn’t part with.

“They were his very favorites,” explained her mother, Griffis. “We’ve got his work boots and his dress boots, too. She keeps them in the closet. She said one day the boys might wear them.”

A pan and pot rack that Perry fashioned from horseshoes hangs in the kitchen. The couple had been remodeling the home when Perry died. Friends, volunteers and, most recently, members of the Irving Fire Department stepped in to help Becky with the project.

“I understand the meaning of community now,” Griffis said. “Perry said he never would move because this was home. This was community. … I never saw anything like this community support.”

That sense of community, Griffis said, eases her mind as she thinks about June, when she will return to Tennessee.

But for now, she dotes on her 5-month-old granddaughter.

With big brown eyes, Presley Wreanne resembles her oldest brother, Wyatt, while Preston, now 6, is the spitting image of his father.

“She has eyes like mine and a complexion like mine, but I think she has his lips and she’s tall,” Becky said.

“I hate that he’s not here, especially with her being a girl, to enjoy her,” she added. “But it was special to have another part of him.”

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