Residents in West have varying memories from April 17, 2013.
Some say it’s the sound that sticks with them.
For others, an indescribable feeling.
For Kim Woodard, a high school teacher who lost the lives of friends as well as her home that day, it was the sight.
“I was outside looking that way when it happened,” Woodard said. “I can remember the fire going, and the mushroom cloud going. Then, everything was dark.”
As she and other teachers on Monday weighed the past three years, from the day of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, injured hundreds more and left the town — including the school district’s campuses — in ruins, to moving in and out of portable buildings, to the start of school in a brand-new campus just two weeks away, one thing was certain: Their hearts are full, and they’re ready to see their students again.
It took Woodard about three or four months, after seeing footage on television again and again, to remember that it wasn’t nighttime when the explosion happened, she said.
The little things that happened in those three or four months, and the years that followed, are what helped West rise up out of the ashes and into the light, the teachers said.
Those little things are what excite them and are what they hold onto now as they begin unpacking boxes and decorating their new classrooms at what they call their new home, they said Monday morning.
The new West High School and Middle School, 1008 Jerry Mashek Drive, is expected to open Aug. 24, two days later than most other districts so officials can wrap up any last-minute construction issues.
Teachers began moving into the campus this week, and said they have felt two distinct emotions as they see the campus for the first time and become comfortable in their new home.
“There’s a very big high of joy, but you’re bringing back a lot of the things we’ve gone through over the years that we made it through, and we’ve made it through stronger,” Woodard said. “You balance those with faith. That’s all there is to it.”
Move-in day started about 8 a.m., with a few teachers waiting in the parking lot, not ready to walk into the building by themselves, they said.
Most of their classroom supplies and books were already in boxes, moved over by staff earlier. A few, like high school English teachers Chelsey Lauer and Donna Sexton, brought decorations from home to line the walls.
As they unpacked, box by box, Lauer pulled out a student’s handwritten note from each, saying she put one in the top of every box to remind herself why she does what she does. Lauer, who instructs freshmen, wasn’t in West at the time of the explosion. She came afterward from Waco, with her first year at one of the temporary buildings, she said.
“My son has cystic fibrosis, and my students are so great about it,” she said through tears, placing a note back into one of the boxes. “They are so loving, and want to help raise money for a cure. They’re already going through so much.”
As she and Sexton blasted ’80s music across their adjoining rooms, she said she was overwhelmed by how much she had to unpack and hadn’t decided if she will hang the notes on one of her walls. But it could be a good place to start, she said.
Their classrooms are similar to others throughout the campus, with a sliding whiteboard wall that combines or separates some rooms for collaboration. Each room also has a whiteboard wall with a projector to give students more interactive capabilities.
The campus, divided by a main hall down the middle separating the middle school side from the high school side, is two stories tall. It has a library and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) lab, two practice gyms and a competition gym, collegelike lounge and study areas, a large cafeteria, a two-story auditorium and more.
At a cost of about $52 million, the campus was paid for through insurance funds and money from the Texas Education Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That’s one of the best parts — local taxpayers didn’t have to pay a dime to rebuild part of West ISD, Superinendent David Truitt said.
Building both halves of the school to be basically identical will help students transition smoothly from middle school to high school, said Michele Scott and Don Snook, principals of the middle school and high school, respectively.
“It’s permanent, and that’s such a good term,” said Jacqueline Uptmore, a sixth-grade English/language arts and reading teacher. “I’m just excited. It was hard the last couple days in the portables, but we all walked out of them and took that last step together.”
They’ll miss the breakfasts and lunches given by the community, the teachers said. They’ll miss the prayers and embraces from those wanting to help with recovery efforts. They may even miss having middle school and high school students share a gym, but flexibility and patience have been the defining factors throughout the transition, Woodard said.
“When we moved into the portables the first year, we didn’t have our buildings. They weren’t ready yet,” said Woodard, who teaches several computer-related courses, referring to her and a fellow teacher’s plight. “They weren’t ready for us until seven weeks into the school year, so we both had computer classes we were teaching with no computers. We were drawing on paper instead of a computer. The kids just rolled with it.”
There are things the teachers won’t miss about their previous accommodations, though, like the long walks to use a restroom or visit an administrative office, or worry about shoes catching on wooden walkways, they said.
But the teachers and administrators will take that flexible skill set with them, because that’s what brought everyone close together, they said. They’re even excited about having water fountains to fill up water bottles again, they said.
As the West community figures out how to navigate the new campus together, the educators are eager to see the reactions when their students walk in the door on that first day.
“I can’t wait to see the little things the kids are going to enjoy — hearing them laugh and get excited about coming in a room and being in a hallway,” said Sexton, a sophomore English teacher. “My daughter’s going to be a senior, and they’ve been in portables for three years. They get to spend their senior year at a school.
“I can’t wait to hear them when they walk in. I want to be at the front door. I think they’ll squeal, and I think some are so sensitive they’re going to cry. And I’ll cry that first day. I didn’t lose my house, but I lost friends. My daughter was calling (Woodard’s) daughter the entire night, and could never get her.
“Reliving all that? I think some of them are going to cry, and we’re just going to have to be there to give them hugs.”