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On Anniversary Of Explosion, West Pays Tribute -- And Looks Forward

Update, Friday afternoon: Today, the morning after a citywide memorial, KERA’s Doualy Xaykaothao talked with Amber Adamson, author of an upcoming book called “The Last Alarm: First Responders’ Stories of the West Explosion.”

Update, Thursday afternoon: A year after a deadly explosion, West is rebuilding.

The small central Texas town paid tribute Thursday night to 15 people killed a year ago when a fertilizer plant exploded in a ball of fire. The blast injured hundreds of people, destroyed homes and schools and left a nearly 100 foot-wide crater.

A local band called Revere, as well as the Baylor Singing Seniors, set the tone for the service marking the first anniversary, which was held at the West fairgrounds. Hundreds came to honor the dead, some wiped tears off their faces during the tribute, and others held their children tighter.

“You know, we all hurt, and cry at the death of a friend or a loved one, but the reason a person hurts so much is because they love so much,” Muska said, trying to comfort those still grieving.

On Anniversary Of Explosion, West Pays Tribute -- And Looks Forward
The KERA Radio story: West residents gather for a memorial service to mark the anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion.

At the same time, the city is seeing signs of renewal.

“The state of the city of West is Robby Payne trying to play golf again … the Bohanins having a spring garden,” Muska said.  “The state of West is we have five rookies filling some very big shoes at the fire department … and we have 13 of the strongest firemen’s wives in the country.”

73-year-old Barbara Vrba watched the ceremony in a wheelchair. After the speeches and the songs, she said she remembered everything from April 17, 2013. She was about to sleep at the local nursing home  when she heard the explosion. Then the ceiling came down and crushed her legs.

“I wish I could get back to walking again,” she said. “I wish the city of West would get back to like it used to be. I’d get back into my nursing home, maybe my husband, too.”

On Anniversary Of Explosion, West Pays Tribute -- And Looks Forward
The KERA Radio story: West residents talk about the first responders who've helped the town in countless ways.

Mark Lichnovsky is a manager at Czech Stop, the popular gas station that sells kolaches off Interstate 35. His own home was damaged. And he lost good friends. For him, the anniversary was about bonding with his neighbors.

“Just being together, being a town, being a family,” Lichnovsky said. “We lost good friends. I lost people I’ve known for 30 years. But you have to rebuild. You have to go on. West has to survive. And West will.”

That’s the same sentiment shared by the mayor. But Muska says he knows this isn’t easy, especially for those still injured, or even those who might suffer from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I just want to make sure that we have the counseling in place, that we do not let anyone fall into the cracks have that ability to do so,” he said.

Muska says the city is only going to get stronger.  

“We’re not going to die off, these people are Czech Texans,” he said. “They’re doing exactly what their ancestors did. Back in the day, if you had a barn and it burned down, everybody came together and rebuilt that barn. That’s what we did this year.”

Some 70 homes are nearly finished. New schools will be next. And, yes, the nursing home, too.

Original story, Thursday afternoon: Various West officials – representing the city, the schools and churches -- gathered Thursday afternoon to talk about life in West since last April’s fertilizer plant explosion. The blast rocked the small town in McLennan County, killing 15 people, including 12 volunteer firefighters, and injuring more than 200.

There’s been a lot of progress over the past year, Mayor Tommy Muska says.

“Today is a hard day for all of us,” he said. “We remember those fallen, but we also have a fantastic story of rebuilding this town.”

He added: “The families -- we need to make sure we keep them in our prayers and our thoughts today. Most of them area doing fairly well. It’s going to be a hard day for a lot of them. But there are some strong people, some strong wives of firemen, widows of firemen.”

On Anniversary Of Explosion, West Pays Tribute -- And Looks Forward
The KERA Radio story: The scene from the town of West, one year after the explosion.

John Crowder of First Baptist Church in West: “There’s no way to adequately express our deep gratitude to all the people who have donated so much, donated time, goods, services and money, gift cards, and we will be forever grateful.

Marty Crawford, superintendent of West schools, paid tribute to the Class of 2014, which spent its entire senior year in temporary facilities. “They’re our pathfinders because we really didn’t know how this was going to go. We’re pretty proud of them.”

Robert Payne with the West volunteer fire department: “We’re so proud of all of our first responders that night who did everything they could to run toward what was happening and not away from what was happening. We’re very thankful these guys who sacrificed for their community. We’re very mindful of the loss their families face.”

A memorial service, called West 4-17 Forever Forward, took place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the West Fair and Rodeo Grounds. A moment of silence was observed at 7:51 p.m., marking the time of the explosion.

A new fertilizer plant?

The Associated Press reports that local officials are considering building a new fertilizer plant. Muska, the West mayor, acknowledged Thursday that the idea is highly controversial among local residents. But he notes that his central Texas town's economy revolved around the West Fertilizer Co. before the facility was leveled by a fire and explosion.

Muska also says that "unfortunately or fortunately" more people outside the region are now aware of the town, which has brought some economic opportunity. Muska says he is negotiating with a flag manufacturer and a recycling company to set up operations in West.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry authorized an additional $4.85 million to help West recover from the explosion. The money will help fix city water infrastructure damaged in the explosion. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, has more.