As the temperature dropped Thursday night under overcast skies, hundreds of people gathered at the fairgrounds to remember the most shattering moment in the life of this small Central Texas town.
They huddled under blankets and coats, and sat in folding chairs and atop long picnic tables. Friends, families and strangers wept and held hands.
They also laughed. And looked to the future. Many wore “God Bless West” and “Pray for West” T-shirts.
It had been one year since fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Co., a business fixture in town. The blaze ignited stores of ammonium nitrate, resulting in a concussive explosion that leveled buildings and killed 15 people, 12 of them first responders who had headed toward the plant to fight the initial blaze. More than 200 people were injured.
“We lost 12 of the bravest and finest individuals any community can possess,” the Rev. Terry McElrath of Tokio Baptist Church said to the crowd Thursday night. “The debt we owe those firefighters is undefinable. How do you put a price on human life?”
McElrath urged the people to lean on one another and God to heal.
“There is no doubt West can and will recover.”
At 7:51, the moment of the explosion, there was silence for one minute.
Afterward, the Rev. John Crowder of First Baptist Church said the community will never forget April 17, 2013.
“We won’t let our disaster define us. We won’t let our past confine us,” he said. “The best days for West are still ahead.”
‘A new normal’
Mayor Tommy Muska said the town is returning, evidenced by the building of new homes, the sounds of bulldozers and jackhammers, and residents again playing golf and planting spring gardens.
Muska said West has persevered through community spirit, faith in God and hard work.
“The city will have a new normal,” Muska said. “We just don’t know what that normal will look like yet.”
Earlier, Muska had told The Associated Press that officials are considering whether West Fertilizer Co. could build a new plant.
He acknowledged that the idea is highly controversial among residents. But the town’s economy revolved around the plant, he said.
“Unfortunately or fortunately,” he said, more people outside the region are now aware of the town, which has brought some economic opportunity. Muska said he is negotiating with a flag manufacturer and a recycling company to set up operations in West.
‘God had his hand on West’
The event Thursday night was billed as “West 4-17 Forever Forward.”
Mary Harper and her husband, William, are volunteer firefighters in nearby Leroy and had rushed toward West to help when they heard about the blast.
“That night was like something none of us had ever seen, and we will never forget,” Mary Harper said. “God had his hand on West that night. It could have been so much worse.”
Harper said she felt drawn to the remembrance to pay her respects.
“This is my community,” she said. “These are our people.”
Jill Jenkins, a West resident and registered nurse, recalled rushing to the plant after the explosion to administer first aid to the injured.
On Thursday, she took the day off to do volunteer work in West.
“The explosion is still very raw. It doesn’t feel like an entire year has passed,” Jenkins said.
“No one here has stopped long enough to let this sink in, to really grieve. We have been so busy rebuilding. Tonight, I hope West can heal a little.”
Baylor University’s Singing Seniors opened the ceremony with Amazing Grace and Love Can Build a Bridge. Baylor is about 20 miles south of West in Waco. A week after the blast, a memorial service attended by President Barack Obama was held at Baylor’s Ferrell Center.
Baylor President Ken Starr also spoke at the West observance Thursday night. The Rev. Ed Karasek of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption gave the benediction.
The emotional toll
Crowder lost his home in the blast and remains in a double-wide trailer bought by deacons at his church. He’s rebuilding, but with at least one small addition: a Bible, wrapped in plastic, laid with a prayer in the home’s foundation under the living room floor.
“It’ll never be what it was,” Crowder said of his town. “So the next big step that we have to do as a community is create a new normal.”
Other residents are also cleareyed about the challenges ahead.
Payments from the city’s long-term recovery fund, which received about $3.6 million in donations, have been delayed as organizers deal with unforeseen paperwork and federal regulations. The city’s go-to person for that sort of work, City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, was a volunteer firefighter who died in the blast.
“The rest of us had a huge learning curve,” Crowder told The Associated Press.
Muska said he’s closely watching the emotional toll the blast has taken on the city’s 2,800 residents, especially victims who are still recovering.
“A lot of them have suffered some type of post-traumatic stress,” Muska said. “I am definitely concerned. We are not going to lose sight of that.”
Holly Harris’ husband, Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Luckey Harris, rushed to save other first responders when he saw smoke at the plant. When she didn’t immediately hear from him, she sensed that he may have died.
She remains in their home outside West, where the fence now has a metal shield with her husband’s initials above a firefighter’s hat. One of her sons remains a Dallas firefighter, and another has since signed up.
Harris and others say they’ve chosen to push forward and not dwell on unanswered questions, such as what sparked the fire or what firefighters knew going in — or what could have been done to prevent it.
“It’s just a choice that we’ve made that we’re not going to be sad,” she said. “I mean, we are sad at times. But we’re going to try to make everything a happy situation and try to get on with our lives.”
An additional $4.8 million in disaster assistance will be provided to West, Gov. Rick Perry’s office announced Wednesday.
It will be used for work on water treatment and storage facilities, infrastructure repairs and other needs.
West officials requested the additional state money last week.
The state has now given West about $8 million in recovery aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $20 million this year to help rebuild two schools destroyed in the blast.