WEST — One year after a fertilizer plant exploded, killing 15 people and injuring more than 300, the residents of West are rebuilding.
West, a farming town located approximately 20 miles outside of Waco, has a population of less than 3,000 and an all-volunteer fire department. On April 17, 2013, a fire broke out, causing stores of ammonium nitrate at the West Fertilizer Co. to detonate. Of the 15 people killed in the explosion, nine were first responders.
The explosion, which had force comparable to that of a small earthquake, caused severe damage to surrounding buildings, including stores and homes. The local high school, located across the railroad tracks, had to be demolished and has yet to be rebuilt.
Small wooden stars with positive messages such as “God bless West!” stand, hang or lie in the yards of almost every lot around the field where the plant used to be. Some of the surrounding properties have been left untouched since the explosion — one lot holds a house without a roof, windows or doors, and a tree bearing the remnants of a tree house. Other lots are now under construction.
Suzanne Hack, executive director of the West Long Term Recovery Center — a nonprofit organization created to provide guidance, resources and education about rebuilding efforts — said the town has issued 28 certificates of occupancy and 205 building permits since the explosion. Hack said many local contractors and builders are working to rebuild houses in the town.
David Eubanks, an electrical contractor from West, said he has worked on six new houses since the explosion. He said people have steadily been moving back into their houses.
According to Hack, the recovery center received $3.6 million in donations since the explosion last year.
“I wasn’t here when [the organization] started, but my understanding was that whenever the explosion occurred, a number of disaster relief organizations were immediately on the scene,” Hack said. “The leaders of those organizations, as well as leaders in the West community, got together and discussed forming this organization.”
West resident Trish Webber said her family’s lawn mower repair business and part of her family’s house were both destroyed in the explosion.
“For us, because we had the business that was destroyed also, we were not only out of our home, but we were out of work,” Webber said. “Our main focus was getting the business back.”
Webber said they were able to rebuild the business in two months but have only recently started seeing their customers come back because April is lawn mower season.
“Because we have the business, we’re seeing our customers come back for the first time, so we pretty much talk about the explosion every day,” Webber said. “I think it helps. I never talked about it a whole lot, and now I’m having to because I’m seeing a lot of people for the first time.”
Cindy Grones, an X-ray technician from West, said her house, located just across the railroad tracks from the plant, was destroyed in the explosion.
Standing in the wooden skeleton of her new home — which is scheduled to be completed in late August, with the help of a local contractor and longtime family friend — Grones said returning to her house after the explosion was an emotional experience.
“I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, but I remember we came back on April 27 and it was horrible,” Grones said. “Just destruction everywhere. You had to dig through your stuff and wipe all the fertilizer off.”
Grones said rebuilding is only a small part of the recovery process.
“I think this is part of the recovery — the building part,” Grones said. “The emotional part — it’s going to be a long time. I don’t think none of us will get through this totally. People say you can get over it, but I don’t think so. You just learn how to deal with it day by day. You love your family. You try to do what you can.”
Grones said the residents of West have grown closer since the explosion.
“We knew just about everybody [that was killed], and if you didn’t know them personally, you knew of them,” Grones said. “West is a small town, but I don’t think anybody really realized how close we really are with each other.”
Cindy Grones’ youngest daughter, 15-year-old Anna Grones, said things have started to return to normal in West.
“Right after it happened, people who never talked to me before would come talk to me,” Anna Grones said. “It’s all back to normal now. If you try to talk about it, sometimes people say you’re just trying to get attention.”
Anna Grones said she is optimistic about the town’s rebuilding efforts.
“It’s no biggie,” she said. “We got this.”