Just a handful of UT students grew up in West, but hundreds drive through the town on weekend trips home and excursions north. The tiny town clings to several miles of I-35’s eastern edge, just north of Waco. Dallas-bound students know West for its iconic Czech Stop, a store that has a wood-paneled facade and yellow sign, visible from the Interstate, and that sells kolache pastries. After the devastating fertilizer plant explosion on Wednesday night, the Czech Stop still stands, but a significant portion of the town — its school, its people, its homes — does not.
As late as Thursday afternoon, estimates for the number dead ranged from 5-15 people, with more than 150 injured. Vigorous cleanup efforts have begun, but broken glass from shattered windows is everywhere, and the part of downtown West surrounding the plant has been completely blocked off. West residents, in a state of shock, are using Twitter and Facebook to ask about the health and safety of friends and family members.
Melany Jean, a UT anthropology and art history sophomore who grew up in West, shared a Twitter exchange representative of the town’s response, equal parts chaotic and heroic. (Jean’s parents and three siblings, who live on the outskirts of downtown West, are safe.) A West High School senior tweeted, “@AndyWard needs to tell me I’m okay before I break in half.” The Andy Ward in question, also a West high school student, worked in the now-collapsed nursing home. A string of concerned replies, asking whether anyone had “heard from him yet,” followed. And then: “Actually, he’s better than okay. He’s a hero.” Ward, according to Jean, had been unable to reply to his friend’s concerned tweet not because he was injured, but rather because he was busy helping transport injured nursing home residents to safety.
Jean believes West’s small-town familiarity will help the community of almost 3,000 rebuild itself in future weeks and months. She says it “has a distinct spirit where everyone is familiar with everyone that can sometimes be suffocating but beyond that is a deep-rooted loyalty to anyone associated with the town.”
Although West geographically and physically resembles other Central Texas towns of its size, its Czech heritage makes it special. In the 19th century, Czech immigrants moved to West and Czech last names still fill classroom roll call lists. The Czech immigrants, responsible for the town’s tie to kolaches, “clung to [their heritage] and kept it alive in an adaptive way, Texas rural culture mixed in with Czech culture,” Jean said. She describes an annual West Fest and a high school junior historians club, which holds polka dances.
Authorities say there is no reason to suspect the fire that triggered the explosion was anything but an accident, but that does not diminish the sadness caused by the explosion.
At press time, we know few details about the decision to build the plant close to homes and a school or the safety precautions that were or weren’t taken to prevent the explosion. What we know for sure is that in the coming weeks and months, national news cameras, reporters and attention will leave the town of West to face the daunting, sad task of picking up the pieces and rebuilding. But UT students, young, energetic and approaching summer vacation, are in a prime position to help with that effort.
For now, West does not want or need material donations, though students can donate blood to a number of on campus blood drives and money to the Salvation Army and Red Cross. But in the near future, West will need volunteers to rebuild infrastructure and lives. UT students should take the initiative to offer that kind of support. Talking about people at home, Jean describes families concerned with the coming days more than the future months. “A lot of people are staying with family outside of West, posting on Facebook family members’ clothing sizes, checking on other people. Not a lot of people have moved further than shock, I don’t know that anyone knows what they’re going to do,” she says.