Reactions: Hundreds attend church service in West honoring first responders

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Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 8:50 pm

Worshippers came by the hundreds to pray at a non-denominational church service in West honoring the victims of the fertilizer plant blast.

Several hundred people on Thursday night packed St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in downtown West.

A victim relief services chaplain says the prayers and hymns honor the first responders who rushed toward the danger of the plant fire that led to the blast — and those who were simply too close to the site when the blast erupted.

Hundreds of white candles were distributed in the pews for a candlelight tribute.

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People keep asking Austin resident Joe Berti if he feels unlucky.

A bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon seconds after Berti finished the race. Two days later, he was in his home state of Texas when he saw a fertilizer plant explode near Waco.

“I was just like, ‘I can’t believe this!’” said Berti, who said he had never witnessed an explosion before. Then he thought: “I just want to get out of here and get away from all these explosions.”

But Berti, as it turns out, is far from unlucky. Instead, he feels fortunate. He left both tragedies unscathed, while members of his running group and his wife — who was closer to the Boston explosion than he was — were also unhurt.

“It’s a miracle,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. “People keep saying, ‘Don’t you feel unlucky?’ and I was actually the opposite — saying not only do I not feel unlucky, but I feel blessed that my wife could be 10 yards from the explosion and not have a scratch.”

After leaving Boston, Berti he had a daylong meeting in Dallas, followed by a museum tour. He was heading home on Interstate 35 and nearing Waco Wednesday night when he saw black smoke up ahead to his left. As he drove closer, he saw — and felt — his second explosion in two days.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” he remembers thinking. He described the giant fireball as a massive force that shook his car. He said it looked like pictures of nuclear explosions that he has seen on television.

He didn’t know what he had just witnessed — but he pulled over and took a picture.

“My next reaction was to get out of there because something fell on the top of my car — some debris or something fell from the sky,” he said.

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Willie Nelson said Thursday that he will turn an upcoming Texas concert into a benefit for victims of the explosion at a fertilizer plant not far from where he grew up.

The country music icon still has a home in Abbott, Texas, about five miles north of West, which was rocked by the explosion Wednesday night that left an unknown number of people dead and more than 160 hurt. He remembers riding his bike the short distance between the towns and still has many friends and family there.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of West,” Nelson told the Associated Press before taping a CMT Crossroads special in Nashville. “There are a lot of our friends and loved ones and neighbors down there. We talked to some of them and some of them made it out OK, and some of them didn’t. But they’re strong and they’ll be back. It’s one of those things you don’t get over. But you will get through it.”

The concert is scheduled for April 28 in Austin.

When not on the road touring, Nelson has lived in Austin since 1971. The concert was scheduled as an 80th birthday celebration, but now will serve a dual purpose.

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Connally ISD is preparing space on its campuses to house West middle and high school classes.

Grades 7-10 of West ISD will move to Conally’s old intermediate school building, said Lori Kreder, Connally public relations representative. The 11th-grade students will be moved to a wing of the east campus of Connally High School. Seniors will attend class in Connally’s multipurpose building.

Connally students, teachers and maintenance are working to move furniture to the rooms and shuffling current Connally High School teachers to new locations, Kreder said, with the hope that the West students can be on campus by Monday morning.

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For Carolanne Kocian, the first indication that anything was wrong Wednesday night was an unusual, “chemical, rubbery” smell that she had never experienced before.

Kocian, whose home is about 400 yards from the back of the West Fertilizer plant, said it didn’t smell like a fire, but her 17-year-old son, Zachary, dashed out of the house to see if he could help someone whose house might be on fire.

Zachary didn’t get too far before the huge explosion rocked the northern McLennan County town.

The blast lifted both of them off their feet and sent them to the ground. Flying glass struck Kocian and her two toddler grandchildren, who were playing on the living room floor.

“We heard popping, like someone shooting off a gun,” said Kocian, who lives on Trlica Road. “My horses had their tails up in the air. They knew something was wrong.”

Kocian picked herself up off the floor and realized she had broken every nail on one hand and had glass embedded in her arms and head. She also was treated at a hospital for a concussion Wednesday night, adding that she picked a piece of glass from one of her grandson’s legs.

Kocian’s two horses were still missing Thursday afternoon, she said.

“We are just lucky and thankful to be alive,” she said.

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Sharon Rios can rattle off at least a dozen family members and friends who lost homes after the neighboring West Fertilizer Plant exploded into flames Wednesday.

Jean Maler, her 70-year-old mother, had some of the worst damage. Maler lives on Davis Street near West Intermediate School, which was engulfed in flames following the blast.

Maler’s home was completely flattened, furniture tossed about into pieces.

“We tried to go back in there after the area cleared out, but you couldn’t walk in there because the debris was 3-foot high,” Rios said.

Maler said she’s at a loss for what to do next. The family had hoped to get back into the home Thursday to recover what they could, but emergency responders hadn’t given resident the green light to re-enter as of 3 p.m.

“I don’t know what you can do,” Rios said. “Just start cleaning, take it one day at a time.”

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Walter M. Reaves Jr. was reading his iPad on his couch in the living room when he heard the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.

“It was just a real loud boom and stuff started flying around the room, and the next thing I know my ceiling was on top of me,” said Reaves, an attorney who is better known as Skip.

Reaves said after he dug himself out and started looking around his heavily damaged home, he saw that the windows were blown out and the back door was lying on the front porch.

He quickly realized that the only way for the door to have gotten there was to have flown through his house, directly over his head and onto the front porch.

“It was pretty frightening,” he said.

Reaves considers himself fortunate that he only suffered minor scratches from the ceiling falling on him, especially with the flying glass and back door.

Reaves’ home on Northridge Circle is about a half-mile west of the fertilizer company. He has lived in West since 1981. He said he will stay with his daughter for the time being.

“It is devastating,” Reaves said. “We don’t know how many people are going to be without homes altogether and a lot of people are going to have homes that are needing to be fixed up. It is just all kind of surreal. I was driving around and it was like all the images of 9/11 ... houses destroyed, debris in the street, it’s horrible.”

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A team of chaplains has organized in West to provide emotional support to emergency responders involved in search-and-rescue efforts from the plant explosion.

Firefighters are believed to be among the anticipated five to 15 deaths officials so far expect in connection with the explosion.

Around five or six first-responder chaplains have come to West to assist the families of deceased emergency personnel, said Ed Stauffer, executive director of the Federation of Fire Chaplains.

“We will work with them to try to give them guidance and give them support as arrangements have to be made,” said Stauffer, who is based in Meridian. “And we try to give them some hope, that’s the main thing.”

Stauffer said the chaplains also will provide guidance to fellow responders in coping with both the civilian and the emergency personnel deaths. He noted that most people in a community the size of West are related or know each other.

“(Responders) hold (feelings) down deep, and if you can get them to talk about it, it helps,” Stauffer said. “That’s all you can do, is try to help.”

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Corey Jensen felt the rumble from the West Fertilizer Plant explosion at his home in Abbott, five miles away from the blast.

He and his 7-year-old son Ashton walked to their backyard and saw the mushroom cloud of smoke and fire rising into the sky. Jensen quickly dropped off his son with his mother and sister, then drove into West to help clear residents from their homes.

“It felt like a dream, like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Jensen said of seeing how homes were destroyed from the impact of the explosion.

“Nothing as major as this has ever happened out here before, where you have no control over it.”

Jensen spent part of Thursday volunteering at the West Community Center, a central relief site. The center is supposed to host the opening day for youth baseball season this Saturday, he said.

“It’s going to take some time (to heal),” Jensen said.”But eventually they’re going to pour in (time and resources) and rebuild.”

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Five for Fighting, known for its hit song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” that became an anthem after the Sept. 11 attacks, will perform Thursday at a benefit concert at Baylor University to aid the West community.

The concert is free and open to the community. Cash donations are welcome to support relief efforts in West.

The concert — originally scheduled for Thursday night on Fountain Mall on the Baylor campus as part of the University’s Diadeloso (“Day of he Bear”) celebration — has been moved indoors to the Ferrell Center, 1900 S. University Parks Drive.

Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. The Fort Worth-based band Green River Ordinance will begin its performance at 7 p.m., followed by Five for Fighting at 8 p.m.

Along with becoming a Sept. 11 anthem, “Superman” was performed by Five for Fighting (stage name John Ondrasik) at The Concert for New York City in late 2001.

For information on Baylor’s response to assist the West community, visit baylor.edu/relief.

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In the chaotic aftermath of the explosion, some West residents gathered in one place that provided a sense of peace —West Church of Christ.

Diane Parma, a member of the church, came to the sanctuary in the hours following the explosion, opening the doors and slowly began to gather with family, friends and fellow church members.

“I just sat down and cried like a baby,” Parma said.

Around 75 to 100 people trickled in and out during the night, wanting to clean themselves of blood or dirt, using restrooms, and inquiring about loved ones who they hadn’t been able to reach.

The church has since been turned into an overflow donation center for the neighboring West Community Center, the main treatment and shelter for evacuees.

Parma lives on West Rhonda Street, blocks from the fertilizer plant. She and her husband, Gary, haven’t been able to return since; all of the windows were blown out of their home.

“A fireball hit the house next door, and we don’t know if they were able to get out,” Parma said, becoming visibly upset. “The fire just went up so fast ... one of the (firefighters) tried to save them, but it was too much.”

Parma said volunteers have been coming throughout the day with donations, including 7UP, which brought sports drinks for residents. Waco Custom Meats also planned to bring food to serve the center.

Donations that are needed include basic hygiene products, such as toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper and baby products.

“It’s been an overflow here of people helping out, some church members and some not,” Parma said. “That’s what we do in this community, we stick together.”

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Ronnie Sykora, general manager of Sykora Family Ford in West, said fortunately the explosion caused only insulation and dust to fall from the ceiling of the dealership, nothing major.

The dealership is located along the east side of Interstate 35, essentially on the opposite side of town.

He described the community as “somber,” but added, “We are buoyed by the outpouring of support. We are getting call after call from people wanting to know if they can help in any way.”

Sykora said he knows at least dozens of cars were rendered undrivable, and he hopes to begin operating the dealership’s wrecker service as quickly as he is given permission to enter the most devastated areas.

“I’ve been told by several people that cars were shaken so violently that their airbags deployed,” Sykora said.

Sykora said the heart of the downtown business district was spared the worst of the damage, “with glass breakage reported there more than anything. The situation is not near as bad as it is in the residential area.”

A part of the West business scene for decades, Sykora Family Ford has become a drop-off point for those wanting to contribute water, Gatorade, toiletries and other items to those in need.

“We are making sure they get into the right hands,” Sykora said.

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Linda Goelzer, public relations director of Carter BloodCare, said it wasn’t a surprise that turnout to give blood was so strong.

“Central Texas is one of those points in our territory where when something happens, people show up,” she said.

The last time Carter BloodCare saw such a large number of potential donors turned out to help was in the aftermath of the 2011 Fort Hood shootings, she added.

The turnout to support West was only fitting for a community known for its giving, she noted.

“The people in West are incredible blood donors,” she said.

Carter BloodCare Center employees were kept busy doing initial screening of potential donors and attending to donors on the center’s eight beds. While the process of giving blood only takes about 10 minutes, going through a mini-physical that checks blood pressure, physical signs, blood type and blood iron levels plus post-donation recovery and paperwork adds up to about an hour, Goelzer said.

The spokesman urged those interested in giving blood to call Carter Blood Center and make an appointment for later, consider supporting upcoming community blood drives or, in the case of a business or organization, consider hosting drives in upcoming weeks.

Summer months are generally a time when blood supplies run low. Given that donors can’t give blood for two months after donation, officials are concerned that a high turnout of donors now may impact blood supplies later, she said.

Groups wishing to set up a blood drive can email bookablooddrive@carterbloodcare.org for details.

Goelzer said those who want to give blood now won’t be discouraged from doing so, however.

We always need donors. It takes us 1,100 donors a day to meet our regular needs,” she said. Carter Blood Care serves 58 counties in north, central and east Texas.

By 10 a.m., Carter Blood Care Center had called in a bloodmobile to handle the crowd of possible donors. Spokesman Goelzer recommended those wanting to give might go to the Providence Health Center blood drive scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.

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By 10 a.m., a line of approximately 200 possible blood donors stretched from Carter BloodCare Center’s front door around the corner to Mardel’s Christian Bookstore. Some had waited roughly an hour by then.

Midway High School juniors Sarah O’Connor, 17, Erin Illich, 17, and Haley Ehgotz, 17, and Haley’s sister Amelia Ehgotz, 13, a Midway Intermediate School student, had taken time off from school to give blood — a first for them.

“We felt really bad for the community of West,” said Illich, wearing a red-and-black shirt — the colors of West High School -—in support.

“A lot of us know kids who go to school there,” noted O’Connor.

Jessica Dominguez, store manager of the Starbucks located at 1428 Wooded Acres Drive, and Matt Wilson, store manager of the Central Texas Marketplace Starbucks, were serving free coffee to those standing in line in the damp, chilly weather.

“Just hot, hot coffee,” Wilson said.

Martin Deanda, 40, had been standing in line outside in a T-shirt for more than an hour. He regularly gives blood, he said, and made the decision last night to do so this morning.

“I just came to help out,” he said.

Next to him, Rebecca Wright, 32, was waiting to give. Her son’s teacher at First Baptist Church Day Care Center is from West, she said, and she wanted to help.

Two McLennan Community College EMT trainees Alyssa Medina, 19, and Jessica Kail, 19, were in line to give blood some eight hours after volunteering to help at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center last night. They weren’t alone.

“They told us they had too many volunteers and that with (emergency patients) stable, we should go home for right now,” Medina said.

The line was thickly populated with Baylor University students who had taken time out of their Diadeloso activities. Four friends, Allison Counts, 21, Jean Stoll, 20, Eric Grant, 21, and Robert Taff, 20, made the decision to come out Thursday morning and give blood via group text last night.

“I had always wanted to give blood, but didn’t want to do it alone,” Stoll said. Grant said they saw an opportunity to serve and took advantage of it.

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For longtime West Justice of the Peace David Pareya, the job ahead of him is bringing back horrible memories.

Pareya, who narrowly escaped serious injury himself after the explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant Wednesday night, is preparing to sift through debris and possibly pronounce dead some of his good friends.

Twenty years ago this week, Pareya was among a team of justices of the peace who walked through the charred remains of the Branch Davidian compound near Elk to view the remains of David Koresh and 75 of his followers.

“This brings back some very bad memories,” Pareya said Thursday morning.

Pareya and judges Cindy Evans, John Cabaniss and John Collier had the unenviable task of pronouncing the church members dead after a fire destroyed the compound April 19, 1993.

The other judges have since died.

Pareya came close Wednesday night. He said he had just left his office when he saw smoke coming from the fertilizer plant. He watched firefighters setting up from a nearby city park and decided to go home to change clothes and come back to help them.

“I hadn’t even got my truck into gear yet when I felt like a huge wave of pressure and then boom, boom, boom, boom,” Pareya said.

He was a half-block from the plant and the explosion shattered the windows in his three-quarter-ton Chevrolet pickup. Seconds later, a large chunk of debris fell from the sky and crushed the cab of the truck.

Somehow, Pareya escaped with minor cuts on his neck from the flying glass.

Pareya’s home on North Reagan Street is close to the plant. It was heavily damaged.

“All I’ve got is the clothes I have on and what’s in my pockets,” Pareya said. “I haven’t even changed clothes.”

He rushed to his 80-year-old mother’s home nearby and it also was severely damaged. Betty, his mother, suffered a cut hand and he and other family members took her to a hospital in Whitney to get stitched up, Pareya said.

Now the grim task of recovering the victims lies before them.

“I am probably going to know everyone of them,” Pareya said.

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Michael Maler, 49, lost his house in the blast.

He says he knew several of the dead (the Tribune-Herald does not have any names of those killed at this point).

“(West) is never going to be the same,” he said.

In describing the explosion, Maher said, “You felt the pressure first, and then BOOM! My ears are still ringing.”

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Jenene Picha, owner of Czech-American Restaurant, said her in-laws’ homes were destroyed in the blast.

“It was like a war zone last night,” she said.

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Tweets are abundant on social media.

The band Brave Combo, which has been a fixture and featured performer at Westfest each year, tweeted: “Our saddened hearts go out to our many good friends in West, TX tonight. This beautiful little Czech-American town is very important to us.”

New Pope Francis also used his official Twitter account, @Pontifex, to tweet: “Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families.”

West has many Catholics due to its strong Czech heritage.

Staff writers Lowell M. Brown, Tommy Witherspoon, Kirsten Crow, Regina Dennis, Carl Hoover and Mike Copeland contributed to this report.

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