For the small town of West, an event no one saw coming


Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

WEST — Outside her house Thursday afternoon, Carolanne Kocain struggled to describe the explosion that happened at the fertilizer plant close to her home in the town of West on Wednesday evening. She described the event with improvised sound effects, broad hand gestures and an aching, shrieking voice. She remembered the balls of fire leaping into the air, she remembered the force that threw her and held her against a wall and she remembered pulling a glass shard out of her 1-and-a-half-year-old grandson’s leg.

As she described the explosion, Kocain looked around her front yard — now filled with discarded furniture and members of the media — before remembering her horses were missing.

“We weren’t prepared for this,” Kocain said multiple times. “No one told us nothing.”

“No one came. No sirens. No nothing.”

Kocain is one of many West residents who were completely blindsided and shocked by the explosion at the fertilizer plant and the devastation it is wreaking on the small town. West is located about 20 miles north of Waco and has a population of less than 3,000 — about the same as the number of students who live in the Jester dorms.

At approximately 6 p.m. Wednesday night, a small fire started at the West fertilizer plant. Less than two hours later, the plant exploded with such force that cities as far as 45 miles away felt the ground tremble.

The explosion resulted in fatalities, injuries to more than 150 people, property damage and evacuations. Hospitals in Waco treated more than 160 people. It is still unclear how many have died, as officials and authorities will not give specifics. Department of Public Safety spokesman Sgt. Jason Reyes said he could only confirm there had been deaths.

B.J. Walters, a 23-year-old West resident, said the explosion felt like an earthquake. Walters and his grandmother, Joyce Rucker, were told to evacuate. They managed to bring their 6-year-old dog Pepe with them, but they had to leave everything else behind them at their home. Walters said he is not sure if their house is still standing as part of their attic was caving in when he was leaving.

Walters and his grandmother evacuated to First Baptist Church of Gholson, where they tried to sleep on an air mattresses on the floor. Gholson is a smaller town than West, located slightly southwest of the city with a population of just over 1,000.

Walters said he did not think something of this magnitude would ever happen in West. Like Kocain, he was in disbelief and shock.

“Nothing bad ever happens in West,” Walters said. “The worst thing that ever happens in West is somebody gets too drunk.”

Walters said he was grateful to First Baptist Church and West’s surrounding towns for all the help they gave. Not all evacuees from the area stayed at shelters, however. Early Thursday morning, Gholson ISD Superintendent Pam Brown noted she did not have any evacuees take shelter in her school, which could take up to 20 evacuees. Brown said she was not surprised.

“It is such a tight-knit community that the people who are evacuating, I am sure most of them have relatives or friends they’re staying with,” Brown said.

Concerns about air quality forced anyone living near the fertilizer plant to move. Dark clouds and thunderstorms kept the morning and early afternoon grim on Thursday, and the same mood could be felt throughout the town. The explosion shattered the windows of many shops and restaurants in West. While store owners and their employees sifted through the rubble and cleaned up, few businesses were open.

Nors Sausage and Burger House was closed Thursday. Lori Nors, who owns the restaurant with her husband, said the restaurant is staying closed despite the minimal damage the building took from the explosion.

“It’s too chaotic … too heartbreaking,” Nors said.

Meanwhile, workers boarded broken windows and empty frames. Stores that were vulnerable to theft and the weather in the morning were safe by the afternoon. Nors said she is confident West’s unity will help the city move past the tragedy.

“We’ll bond together,” Nors said. “We’re all intertwined. We’re one big family.”

Nors’s son-in-law and grandson were in their home one-and-a-half miles away from the fertilizer plant when it exploded. The ceiling collapsed on them, but Nors said they made it out all right.

“They only got scratches and cuts,” Nors said, tearing up. “Thank God.” 

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would provide the community with any resources it needed to move past this event.

But that does not keep Kocain from feeling hopeless. Kocain’s house is on the outskirts of West. It is not a part of the city and it is not a part of a neighborhood. Her husband died several years ago, leaving her to raise her children. Like her house, she feels very much alone.

“I don’t have insurance,” Kocain said. “I’m on Social Security, I don’t have no money to fix this. This destroyed my home. There’s nothing left of it.”