Texas Blast Takes Toll on Two Small-Town InstitutionsMichael C. Bender and David Mildenberg
The fertilizer-plant explosion that killed at least 14 people and injured almost one of every 10 residents of West, Texas, also pulverized two of the city’s beloved institutions: its schools and volunteer fire department.
At least five firefighters -- about 15 percent of its force -- are feared dead from the April 17 blast at Adair Grain Inc.’s warehouse. Three of the five public schools remain closed. Those blows, plus injuries to 200 people and 35 others still missing, have broken hearts across this rural community of 2,800 people.
“These are the institutions of this town,” said Joann Williams, 70, who was making a banana-and-fudge ice cream sundae when her ceiling caved in from the explosion. “The schools and the firefighters put on big dinners and fundraisers and help everyone out. It’s a family oriented, close-knit town.”
A largely Catholic community, West traces its roots to Czech immigrants who settled in central Texas to farm wheat and corn, according to the West Chamber of Commerce website. The city hosts an annual polka festival and, thanks to Texas lawmakers, is home to the official state kolache, a fruit-filled pastry available in the town’s several Czech bakeries.
Descendants of the Czech farmers moonlight as volunteer firefighters to give back to the community, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Dallas, said Ronnie Sykora, a former volunteer firefighter, like his father.
“A lot of the guys start when they’re 18 or 20 years old and spend their whole life there,” said Sykora, whose family owns the local Ford dealership. “It’s a camaraderie that keeps them there.”
The same sense of community will pull the school district through its crisis, said Marty Crawford, superintendent of schools.
“It’s going to be an adventure for all of us,” Crawford said at an April 18 news conference.
Rebuilding promises to be a costly task for the town. West, which had revenues of $855,000 in 2004, lost three fire trucks and an emergency medical services vehicle in the blast, said Sergeant Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. A new fire truck can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The city might qualify for block grants from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in a statement. City officials were unavailable to give more-current estimates of West’s finances. City hall was being staffed by volunteers, and the mayor was working on relief efforts.
The West Independent School District listed $13 million in long-term general-obligation debt as of Aug. 31, 2012 financial statements. The district’s revenue decreased by almost $4 million last year to $13.3 million as of Aug. 31, documents show.
Janie Salazar, 57, said her three grandchildren have excelled in West public schools since the kids moved from Dallas two years ago.
“They love their school,” said Salazar, who cleans houses in West. “The teachers and everybody are very good and friendly. They’re great.”
One of the volunteer firefighters who died was an employee of the plant, said Donald Adair, owner of Adair Grain Inc., in a statement. Law enforcement officials have confirmed no names of the fatalities.
“The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over,” Adair said. ”I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion. He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. I will never forget his bravery and his sacrifice, or that of his colleagues who rushed to the trouble.”
The department includes business owners, city employees and retirees, said Jeff Clark, a machinist at Westex Custom Fire Apparatus, a West-based company that services and builds fire trucks. Clark said West firefighters include Marty Marak, owner of a heating-and-air conditioning business, and Mayor Tommy Muska.
Muska, a firefighter for 26 years, said it was “devastating” to lose so many colleagues. “The heart of the department has been destroyed,” he said.
The department, established in 1894 as West Hose Company #1, has 33 firefighters, according to its website. Firefighters collected half of the money to build the firehouse in 2003 with fundraisers like the Annual West Fire Department BBQ Cook-off.
“People in West are very generous for their churches and worthy local causes, but for themselves they are very conservative,” said Georgia Hutyra, president of the History of West Museum, which is planning a museum in the downtown area to open next year. “Everybody keeps their places looking nice, but you don’t see a lot of flamboyant shows of wealth.”
The town’s generosity was evident yesterday as cars, SUVs and pickup trucks lined up about a half-mile to the rodeo grounds outside West, where volunteers used forklifts to sort mounds of donations under a 120-by-120 foot awning. Other volunteers packed the donated items into family-sized cartons of diapers, clothes and toiletries.
Once people’s immediate needs are met, the town will have a longer-term need for construction materials and cash to help rebuild, said Jim Gerik, a spokesman for the volunteer group collecting donations.
Even in good times, small towns have a hard time paying for heavy equipment such as fire trucks, and West lost three of them, Gerik said.
“My dad was the fire marshal for 30 years, and I know what kind of a thing it is to get a new fire truck,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
Two local banks were accepting cash donations, and a website, www.pointwestbank.com, has a dedicated link that accepts donations to help rebuild the schools and the town.
Sykora, who’s also a deacon at St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption, said there was a brotherhood among the firefighters.
“To see young men we’ve known for so many years, men with families and children, lose their lives is just a heartbreak,” he said.