Instead of looking back at the deadly fertilizer plant explosion of 2013, this tightknit Czech community will be getting together this weekend for its own version of a “family reunion.”
For visitors, the 40th edition of Westfest may be about all things Czech: kolaches, beer and polkas. New this year is a kolache-eating contest with categories for men, women, boys and girls, as well as a team event.
For residents, Westfest carries a deeper sentiment, especially in the months of rebuilding after the April 17, 2013, blast that killed 15 people.
“It’s kind of a homecoming,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said. “It’s kind of a communitywide family reunion. It’s actually one of the fun parts of the healing process.”
On the north side of town, the once-ravaged neighborhood nearest the West Fertilizer Co. is getting back to normal. About 100 of the 120 destroyed homes have been rebuilt in the area across the railroad tracks from the plant, where ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins blew up after a fire started.
15 people killed in plant explosion
120 homes destroyed in blast
300+ number of buildings damaged
West’s tax base, appraised at $138 million before the explosion, has climbed to $144 million and will rise even further next year when more new construction goes on the tax rolls.
A high school and middle school are also under construction and should be ready next fall. And West is about halfway through rebuilding streets and other infrastructure damaged in the blast.
It’s a big boost to our economy. It’s our family reunion. It’s our class reunion. Just about all of our family is coming, some from as far as three hours away.
Robert Payne, volunteer firefighter injured in the blast
But Muska said the biggest milestone was the opening of the West Rest Haven nursing home last month.
‘It brings our residents home’
The nursing home, which sat just west of the fertilizer plant, had to be torn down after the explosion. Now, former residents are slowly moving back in.
“It’s about two per day,” said Robert Payne, president of the West Rest Haven board. “We probably won’t reach capacity until November.”
All the residents appear to be ones who previously lived in the home. Payne also said there’s a waiting list “that’s substantially more than we can hold.”
By the time the nursing home is full, it will employ more than 100 people, making it the town’s second-largest employer after the school district.
Rebuilt West Rest Haven nursing home will be West’s second-largest employer when it reaches capacity.
“I think it means a tremendous amount,” said Payne, president of Aderhold Funeral Home and a volunteer firefighter injured in the explosion. “It will be providing jobs to people who want them. It helps our economy. It provides another entity to our tax base and, most importantly, it brings our residents home.”
Despite the progress, Payne doesn’t expect West’s population to return to pre-explosion levels soon.
In the 2010 Census, West had 2,807 residents. But Payne said many of the homes have been rebuilt on two lots rather than one, reducing housing in the city limits.
“I would say it is substantially down,” Payne said. “But I would say the majority of them are right here. They may be out in the country or in another nearby community, but I would say the majority are still nearby.”
Many of the scars from the blast have disappeared, but Muska said challenges remain.
Some residents are still dealing with post-traumatic stress. Counselors are available through West Long Term Recovery, an agency formed to aid residents.
“I think we’ll do that for a while,” Muska said. “It includes the Police Department and Fire Department. We know post-traumatic stress lasts well after the event, but some people are going to seek help and some are not. All we can do is have it for those who reach out.”
About 200 plaintiffs have sued. The first trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 12 in Waco.
The first trial from a series of lawsuits related to the explosion is scheduled to begin Oct. 12 in Waco. About 200 plaintiffs have sued, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald. The defendants include Adair Grain, which owned West Fertilizer Co., and the manufacturers that sold fertilizer to the plant.
‘A tight Czech community’
Westfest will draw thousands of people this weekend, but it will also generate a sense of continuity, said John Hurtick, the festival’s president.
It was fate. The Lord brought us that band. They came to us because we needed them and they probably needed us. Brave Combo is the pride of Westfest.
John Hurtick, president of Westfest
That means bringing back Denton’s Brave Combo, which plays its own brand of polka music and has been a Westfest staple, while also having Red Dirt acts like Cory Morrow play Friday night to attract the younger generation of Czech descendants who would like to hear some Texas country music.
“We still carry on a lot of traditions,” Hurtick said. “Historically, we’ve been a big farming community. That rich black soil — that’s what drew Czech immigrants up here from Galveston. We still have a huge farming community. We’re still a tight Czech community.
“Westfest presents who we are and what we represent.”
If you go
Westfest, a Czech and polka festival, is Friday through Sunday in West, about 70 miles south of Fort Worth, just off Interstate 35.
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-midnight Sunday
Special events: Miss Westfest, 7 p.m. Friday; parade, 10 a.m. Saturday; kolache-eating contest, noon Sunday.
Tickets: Friday, $15 or $12 in advance, children 12 and under free; Saturday-Sunday, $8 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, free for children 5 and under
Parking: $5 per vehicle at festival grounds and in area next to the grounds.
Don’t bring: Pets or coolers.