Recovery continues in West 5 years after plant explosion


Highlights

The West school district, hit hard by the blast, has rebounded.

Residents remember banding together to help each other and rebuild the town.

Head football coach David Woodard, like others in West, lost his home and his place of employment on a Wednesday evening five years ago, when an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant rocked the town, killed 15 and injured hundreds.

Woodard chose to rebuild and rely on the resilience he saw around him as residents immediately went into action, both before and after the blast, which came at 7:51 p.m. April 17, 2013. There was never a question of whether he and his family would choose to stay, Woodard said.

The town saw some leave after the blast to start their lives over and has seen some return. Woodard watched as enrollment in the West school district dropped for four years after the blast, only to see it turn around as the district’s recovery reached a new high point with the opening of a new joint middle school and high school building at the start of last school year.

He never had any doubt West would thrive again, Woodard said. Five years later, the signs of a strong, unbroken community are easy to find. Beyond the new buildings and houses in town, smaller threads of compassion are visible — the same threads that held the town together after the tragedy, he and other West school employees said.

In addition to the 15 people killed, mostly first responders in the line of duty, and the hundreds of people injured, three of West’s schools and more than 350 homes were damaged or destroyed in the town with a population about 2,800.

A commemorative service marking the fifth anniversary of the explosion was scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at West Middle School/High School.

‘What can we do?’

Woodard was driving through Marlin, returning from a track meet with about 20 students, when he heard the West Fertilizer Co. plant was on fire.

The team stopped for a quick bite and waited for word about whether to return and where to go, said Woodard, also the district’s athletics director.

“I thought nothing of it really. I don’t know why,” he said. “Then one of the other coaches, he was in the back seat of the Ford Expedition and said, ‘Holy cow, they just said it exploded.’”

West Intermediate School, declared a complete loss, was the closest school to the fertilizer plant, and West High School was also nearby. It sustained most of its damage on the north side, the district’s website states.

Once Woodard checked that his family was safe, he and others could not get out of their heads how much worse the tragedy would have been if the blast happened at a different time of day, or if they had gotten back to the school a little earlier.

RELATED: Memorial to honor 15 killed in West fertilizer plant blast

In the years that followed, the West school district has seen an almost 10 percent decline in enrollment, some of which can be attributed to families who were unsure whether West could ever thrive again, Superintendent David Truitt said.

The West district’s enrollment fell from 1,440 students for the 2012-13 school year to 1,311 in the 2015-16 year, as staffing levels fell from 205 to 189, according to the Texas Education Agency.

By the time the district opened its new combined middle school and high school at the start of the 2016-17 year, enrollment had turned around and grown to 1,325, and district employment was back up to 197.

And the increase in enrollment is expected to continue. By the 2021-2022 school year, West is projected to have 1,395 students, Truitt said.

The new building and student growth have become symbols of what a community can do in the wake of a tragedy that left much of the town in ruins. And a quick drive up and down West streets shows more signs of a town thriving once again. Much of the success is tied to one of West’s largest employers — the West school district.

“My phone rang constantly that night of coaches in our area asking, ‘What do you need?’” Woodard said. “The guys from Riesel brought buses over here for us. Every coach around here knew and asked, ‘What do you need? What can we do?’ At the time, we really didn’t know.”

Beyond outside financial support from state and federal agencies, a strong ingredient in the glue that binds the city comes from compassion shown by West school staff, administrators, community members and outside school districts in the weeks and months and years after the explosion rocked the town.

‘West is blessed’

Those moments helped lay the foundation for future stability and two critical stages of recovery, said John Crowder, pastor at First Baptist Church of West.

“There’s the immediate disaster relief and then there’s the long-term disaster recovery, two different experiences,” Crowder said. “In that relief time, we were able to say to the community, ‘God is good and that God is bigger than all of this.’ Then we moved into the recovery time and were able to say to everyone ‘God is good, and West is blessed’ and we started looking at the blessing in the way that God is working.”

Crowder has been in West more than 20 years and helped lead the recovery effort by setting up a center to organize volunteers, provide meals and showers to those in need, and work closely with district officials.

He, his wife and his daughter were part of the caravan returning from the track meet with Woodard the night of the explosion, he said. Crowder also lost his home that night. Now he is one of the newest members on the district’s school board.

RELATED: Arson blamed by investigators for West Fertilizer Co. explosion

The day after the explosion, West school administrators and board members immediately went to work to find ways to get school back in session, said Charles Mikeska, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

Mikeska, other administrators and a group of volunteers made sure students did not miss more than two days of school before the district was up and running again, he said. They worked nonstop to prepare what was left of West schools for class, and relied on the grace of neighboring school districts to house students and evacuate residents until another solution could be found, he said.

West schools finished out the year where and how they could, then operated classes out of several portable buildings, which became known to students as “Portable City” for at least the next two years.

And slowly, whether it was eight hours at school or a two-hour baseball game, the ability to stay busy helped bring back life beyond the tragedy, Woodard said.

“It seemed like with me and my family, every waking hour we spent thinking, ‘What are we going to do? Where are we going to live? We don’t have any clothes,’” Woodard said. “Being able to get back to school and being able to be around our staff and the kids, it made it to where those thoughts didn’t enter your mind.”

‘We’ve gone through hell’

The blast destroyed 120 homes beyond repair, and 109 new homes have been built since, Mayor Tommy Muska said.

“We’ve gone through hell, and we’ve come out on the other side,” Muska said.

He has been mayor since 2011 and has seen West growth beyond the rebuilding of West schools. A new hotel has opened, new businesses have moved in downtown, and there are more opportunities for houses to be built in the city limits, Muska said.

“The city is only as good as its school district, and the school is only as good as the city,” Muska said. “Without each other, both of them would die. If the city falters and declines, your schools are going to decline. If your school excels, your city is going to excel as well.”

RELATED: West fertilizer plant hit with 24 safety violations, $118,300 in fines

The sense of community is why West Elementary School Assistant Principal Jana Pratka returned four years after her family and her parents lost everything, she said. After the explosion, Pratka moved up Interstate 35 to the Aquilla school district.

The West district did not have any open positions at the time, but when family returned to West, she was more than happy to return with her two sons and help push West in the right direction, she said.

“One of the firemen killed in the accident was actually at our house that night,” Pratka said. “My husband dropped him off at the fire, and he didn’t come back.

“There was a lot that happened, and I think the healing part in all of it is just how close the community is and that they will do anything for one another.”



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