Melany Jean

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.

Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WEST — A massive explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday killed an undetermined number of people and sent flames shooting into the sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following a blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction.

The explosion at West Fertilizer Co in West, a community about 20 miles north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. 

“We do have confirmed fatalities,” Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said at a news conference about four hours after the explosion. “The number is not current yet. It could go up by the minute. We’re in there searching the area right now and making sure that it’s safe.”

Melany Jean, an anthropology and art history junior from West, said she felt helpless and shocked when she heard the news. Jean, who went to West High School, said her parents moved closer to Waco earlier this year, but her good friends and grandparents still live in town — and that she was able to contact them through social media.

“I heard from my immediate friends, mostly because we’ve all been checking up on each other through social medial, twitter, etc..” Jean said. “So far, everyone has been fine, but it’s going to be an incredibly heavy blow. We’re a small community.”

Jean said she has faith in the resilience of her community.

“It’s a really small town, with a lot of people, and everyone is either family or feels like family,” Jean said. “I think the people who aren’t as affected will step up, quickly, for the people who are. It’s such a great town.”

Jean said the fertilizer plant, which is located in a residential area, has never been a cause for concern in the West community before.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they felt unsafe about it, ever,” Jean said. “Honestly, I’ve never even thought about it.” 

The explosion caused the roof of what appeared to be a housing complex of some kind to collapse. In aerial footage from NBC’s Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate, KXAS, dozens of emergency vehicles could be seen amassed at the scene. Entry into West was slow-going, as the roads were jammed with emergency vehicles rushing in to help out.

Authorities set up a staging area on a flood-lit high school football field, where the injured were being treated or taken to area hospitals via road or helicopter.

Glenn A. Robinson, the chief executive of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, told CNN that his hospital had received 66 injured people for treatment, including 38 who were seriously hurt. He said the injuries included blast injuries, orthopedic injuries, large wounds and a lot of lacerations and cuts. The hospital has set up a hotline for families of the victims to get information, he said.

American Red Cross crews from across Texas were being sent to the site, the organization said. Red Cross spokeswoman Anita Foster said the group was working with emergency management officials in West to find a safe shelter for residents displaced from their homes. She said teams from Austin to Dallas and elsewhere are being sent to the community north of Waco.

Printed on Thursday, April 18, 2013 as Fetilizer plant explodes in West

Melany Jean, UT student from West: "Such a great town."

Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.
Emergency workers evacuate elderly from a damaged nursing home following an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. An explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco caused numerous injuries and sent flames shooting high into the night sky on Wednesday.

Melany Jean, an anthropology and art history junior from West, said she felt helpless and shocked when she heard the news of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, a city about 20 miles north of Waco.

Jean, who went to West High School, said her parents moved closer to Waco earlier this year, but her good friends and grandparents still live in town — and that she was able to contact them through social media.

“I heard from my immediate friends, mostly because we’ve all been checking up on each other through social medial, twitter, etc..” Jean said. “So far, everyone has been fine, but it’s going to be an incredibly heavy blow. We’re a small community.”

Jean said she has faith in the resilience of her community.

“It’s a really small town, with a lot of people, and everyone is either family or feels like family,” Jean said. “I think the people who aren’t as affected will step up, quickly, for the people who are. It’s such a great town.”

Jean said the fertilizer plant, which is located in a residential area, has never been a cause for concern in the West community before.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they felt unsafe about it, ever,” Jean said. “Honestly, I’ve never even thought about it.”