Just hours after a fertilizer plant exploded in the town of West and killed 15 people, veteran WFAA reporter David Schechter arrived on the scene.
He soon found himself inside the blast zone, beyond the tape cordoning off the most devastated area. Over the next days and weeks, he snapped photos of homes that were leveled, buildings blown apart into concrete chunks, garage doors mangled by the blast.
One image stuck with him: the high school football field, turned into a makeshift triage unit.
That image would be the spark for an upcoming WFAA documentary that tells the story of the April 17 explosion and its aftermath through the eyes of the town’s high school football team. On Sunday afternoon, about 300 West residents got a first look at the hour-long documentary, Rise Up, West, at Baylor University.
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“A lot of people there are still struggling. There are a lot of emotions that haven’t been fully processed yet,” Schechter said. “I hope this documentary can provide some healing. I hope there can be some catharsis for West.”
West residents who watched the documentary said they were touched by its honesty.
“It was inspiring,” said Israel Veselka, whose children attend school in West. “It was real. It didn’t gloss over anything. It showed who we are.”
Rise Up, West follows head football coach David Woodard, whose home was destroyed, and several of his players as they try to rebuild. Schechter and photographer Mike Richard spent months conducting interviews, shooting footage and hanging out with the team.
The documentary includes never-before-seen footage of the explosion from a high school student’s cellphone.
In the following months, one football player, Cameron Porter, moved in with his girlfriend’s family after his home was destroyed and struggled with dreams that he is on fire. Another, Karson Kolacek, had to move into a hotel with his sister for months, waiting for his home to be rebuilt.
At one point, team captain Tyler Pustejovsky says his classmates don’t talk much about what happened because they don’t want to deal with the sadness.
“Even though we don’t talk about it,” he says, “we’re always thinking about it.”
Players eventually returned to the football field, but not before a hazardous materials crew removed used IV needles, bloody bandages, grass and about six inches of contaminated soil. Strewn across the nearby practice field were nails, metal screws and bolts left from the explosion.
The football team finished the season with a 1-9 record, which their coach says mirrors the town’s struggles.
“They never quit,” he says. “No matter what happened, they didn’t give up.”