It’s not the pop of nail guns on new roofs or the buzz of circular saws trimming kitchen cabinets that best represent this Czech community’s return to normalcy. It’s the familiar ping of aluminum bats smashing baseballs and softballs, the thwop of a fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt and the shouts of parents urging their children to stretch that single into a double.
West is a baseball town and it’s baseball season.
Last year, the start of Little League was delayed by almost a month when a raging fire turned West Fertilizer Co. into a bomb that shook the ground so hard it registered on earthquake-detecting equipment. The explosion flattened houses, collapsed schools, killed 15 people and devastated this northern McLennan County town of 2,800.
While the tragic loss of life and damage caused by the blast won’t be forgotten, the town has bounced back rapidly and come a long way in a year. People here are starting to look forward to the little things in life again — things once taken for granted — like the sudden spread of a blanket of bluebonnets and the joyous sounds of children playing baseball.
“Those ancestors of ours came over here on a boat,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska, whose father, Adolph, also was mayor. “That was only two or three generations ago. When they came over here, they had a chest and that was all. It was hard, but they made a living here. They started a farm or they started a business, and they made it work.
“Those are the same people living here today. These are the descendants of those same people who came off those boats, who didn’t have anything but the willpower to be a success. That is what these people did. They have come so far in the past year, and I am so proud of them. Same people, just a different generation,” he said.
West residents say the close-knit quality of the community aided in the town’s rapid recovery.
“We really have each other’s backs now, more than we ever did. And I think we don’t take anything for granted now,” said West High School sophomore Preston Macik, who was warming up with senior Nick Kucera recently before a West High School baseball game against Connally.
Kucera and his twin brother, Jackson, both 18, were riding in Nick’s red Ford F-150 pickup about 300 yards away from the fertilizer plant when it blew.
Jackson wanted to see the fire at the plant, and Nick drove him over so he could take a picture. The twins were on their way home when an estimated 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside the plant detonated.
A door panel blew off the truck, badly cutting Jackson’s arm. The blast left Nick with significant hearing loss in his right ear.
Nick, a pitcher and first baseman, is looking forward to recovering his hearing, just as Macik and his classmates look forward to being the first graduating class from West’s new high school, which is in the process of being rebuilt. The old one sustained so much damage it had to be torn down after the explosion.
West Independent School District, which reported $53 million in damages, received $20.8 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with its rebuilding plans.
West will have a smaller high school and no longer need or use an intermediate school. The new high school and adjacent middle school will cost $50 million to $60 million to rebuild. The district has about 1,420 students, about 30 less than it had the year before the blast.
With the high school construction underway, officials broke ground recently on the new West Rest Haven Nursing Home, which also was destroyed.
The new 75,000-square-foot facility will be almost 50 percent bigger than the old one and offer amenities such as larger recreation and rehabilitation areas. The new center, which should be open in mid-2015, will have 120 beds, fewer than the 145 licensed beds at the old nursing home, but it will have room for expansion if necessary.
West Rest Haven president Robert Payne has declined to say how much the new facility will cost, but said it will be significantly more than the insurance payout of about $5 million.
The explosion damaged about 350 homes: 142 were destroyed, 51 sustained major damage, 27 suffered minor damage and 130 were listed as “otherwise affected,” according to city records.
A year later, 28 new homes have been finished; 139, including Muska’s home, have been repaired; and 66 new homes are under construction. Others remain in ruin.
City attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr., known as “Skip,” initially lived with his daughter after his home was demolished. He has been living in a trailer on his property since the first of July and could be moving into his new home, which is being built on the foundation of his previous home, by the end of the month.
“My overall impression is that we are probably a year ahead of where I would have ever expected us to be,” Reaves said. “I just think we have accomplished more in a year than anybody expected. I think probably by the end of the year, almost everything will have been rebuilt and people will be back in their houses. The city is far along with being put back together, and it is being put back together better than it was before.”
A drive around the north side of town bears that out. Older homes are being replaced, with many homeowners choosing white limestone for the exterior of their new houses.
City leaders had a legitimate concern in the days and months after the explosion that West would lose many of its longtime residents. They feared many would choose to move away rather than rebuild.
Residents from the nursing home have relocated and likely won’t return despite West Rest Haven being rebuilt.
But that same independent, tough-as-nails character that kept some proud West residents from seeking assistance by accepting some of the tons of donated items that flooded into the city is evident as they repair their homes.
The best evidence is Syble and Bo Bohannan. Married 62 years, the Bohannans had lived on North Davis Street in West for more than 50 years. He is 85. She is 83.
“People said they didn’t think we would want to rebuild at our age, but I’m not going anywhere,” said Bo Bohannan, a Korean War veteran. “I have plenty of damn time.”
The Bohannans were among the first and were certainly the oldest residents in West to rebuild. They moved into their smaller, but more efficient new home in November.
“We had lived here for so long, and we thought we were getting ready for the glory land,” Syble Bohannan said. “But one day in April, all that changed.”
One by one, with the help of thousands of volunteers, the homes in West that needed to be demolished came down. Lots and blocks were cleared and the rebuilding began.
In turn, the city, which had never really had to deal with issues such as building codes, inspections and permits, began to upgrade and overhaul its ordinances as contractors flooded the town to participate in the rebuilding.
“The city really never had been in a position to have to do anything about a lot of those issues,” Reaves said. “It is obviously going to be a big benefit because all the houses that are going up now are being built a lot better than the ones before.”
Along the way, Muska and the city council have remained upbeat and positive. All but two council members had their homes destroyed or badly damaged.
“This city has come back and the city council did a herculean effort in their work for the citizens of this town,” the mayor said. “They came to work the next morning and have put their personal disasters and problems aside to help this city. It was just a wonderful act of community service, and I just marvel at it.”
The council also hired its first city administrator — West native Shelly Nors — in October.
“I have witnessed such an amazing show of support,” Nors said. “We were already a tight-knit community before all this happened, but this has just made us stronger. It shows our resilience and our ability to make changes. Some older residents are resistant to change. But I have seen so many who have come out to the town hall meetings and shown their support for new ideas that will make West all it can be.”
Those frequent town hall meetings kept residents current on news and solicited residents’ input. In recent months, the meetings have included a group of city planners, landscape architects and economic development specialists who will create a master plan for the West’s rebuilding and growth process.
“You look at the opportunities, and yes, there are opportunities,” Muska said. “But at what price? Obviously, the price was way too heavy, there are no ifs, ands or buts that the price of what is happening in West today was way too heavy.
“But we do need to move forward. The first responders who died wouldn’t want us to just sit here and not do anything. We need to take advantage of this tragedy to the best of our ability. I think those who died would want that, and I guess, at least their deaths would not have been in vain,” he said.
At the most recent town hall meeting, officials even broached the idea of bringing another fertilizer plant to town, given the importance of agriculture in the area.
Although it was not yet a year since the explosion, it was time to address the touchy subject, to debate it among friends and neighbors, Muska said. But when the question arose, no one expressed audible opinions on either side of the issue.
While homes and schools are being rebuilt at a break-neck pace, Marty Crawford, West schools superintendent, said he is concerned that the upcoming anniversary memorial service and the summer slowdown will take an emotional toll on students who, up to this point, have been so busy with athletics, band and homework that they really haven’t had much time to think about the tragedy.
“I think the adults employed by the school district have been inspired by the way our kids have handled the challenge,” Crawford said. “We are a kids-centered organization and that is what we feed off of — our students. Their stability has been outstanding and it has really enhanced the morale of our school district the way our students have handled the challenge.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, who worked with city leaders to help secure federal emergency relief funds to repair schools and city streets, infrastructure and the city park, said West residents deserve “incredible credit for their toughness in the face of adversity.”
“The citizens of West are remarkably hardy. Their resilience and steadfast commitment to their community has helped speed the healing and recovery process. As the rebuilding process continues, I remain committed to helping in any way possible and will never forget about West, all that its citizens have been through and those who perished in the disaster. If every community in America were like West, our country would be far better off than it is today.”
And as almost 500 children ages 4 to 14, representing 43 teams, stood on the West League Booster Club fields April 5 in a ceremony to kick off the start of Little League season, they weren’t thinking about that awful night on April 17.
They were excited about playing baseball.
After all, West is a baseball town and it’s baseball season.