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'I'm Here To Help:' Welcomed Into The Embrace Of West, Texas

Courtney Collins

Reporter Courtney Collins expected just another grueling disaster scene when she left Dallas before dawn Thursday. But that's not what she found. Here's a reporter's view of West, and the people who fuel its beating heart.

I’ve covered a lot of natural disasters and serious accidents as a reporter; tornadoes in Oklahoma, flash flooding in Arkansas, an out-of-control fire near the Missouri border. For members of the media, the drill is almost always the same. Reporters are roped off in a staging area where authorities give briefings. There’s always a restaurant or corner store everyone haunts for coffee, snacks and a free bathroom.

And to be honest, the reception we get tends to be the same, too. Law enforcement officials tolerate us; the town gives us a wide berth. And who can blame them? Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and emergency crews are in the middle of saving lives and investigating chaos, and we show up, microphones in hand, demanding answers. And let’s face it; sometimes we make those demands with an infuriating air of entitlement.

And people in the town? They’re grieving. They’re nursing broken hearts. They’re picking through rubble. Sometimes they don’t want to get their picture taken while they’re doing it.

When I set out for West very early Thursday morning, that’s what I expected to find. I pulled into a Best Western off I-35 to ask directions to the media briefing site and discovered a lot of people in the lobby eating breakfast. I figured I might as well see if anyone was up to talking before heading to the press conference.

I’ve always found that in the wake of a tragedy, you’ll be able to coax someone into an interview about half the time. Some folks want to talk, others will tell you to buzz off. I’m used to both, but I always feel a little sick when I see the hurt in someone’s eyes as they shake their head "no." I hate being someone who causes a grieving soul even more pain. But Thursday morning in West was a first.

I approached a man lingering in the lobby and asked him whether he’d felt the explosion. Dawayne Sitton said he was at work but his wife had been home, three blocks from the plant, during the blast. He pulled out his cell phone to show me what his house looked like -- a cracked foundation and blown-in front door. He emailed the photo to me, delivered a stunningly candid interview, called his wife and asked her to drive to the hotel and do the same.

My head was spinning. A 90-year-old resident of West Rest Haven named Johnnie Sinkule pulled back his sleeve to show me the jagged cuts on his arm. He’d been in bed when his room was blasted apart. Nursing home employee Lola Millhollin who helped pull everyone out of the rubble invited me to join her for breakfast and recounted the entire ordeal with painstaking detail. When I left the Best Western, I’d asked five people for an interview. All five had agreed and spoken with such raw honesty I had a lump in my throat.

At the cattle auction house that served as a briefing site, authorities announced a 10 a.m. press conference. At 10:01, a sergeant with the Waco Police Department came out to apologize for his tardiness and promised the briefing would start momentarily, which it did. He answered questions with thoughtful candor for nearly half an hour. He made sure the briefing was held in a covered area so nobody got rained on.

After the press update, I wandered into the attached Stockyard Café in desperate need of caffeine and a place to sit and write. When I pulled out my debit card to order an Earl Grey, the woman behind the counter shook her head. “We’re not charging today, just a donation if you have it.”

Mind-boggled, I sipped my tea and flipped through my notes as volunteers arrived with piles of box lunches from McAlister's. A woman encouraged me to eat up and said the food was for the media, law enforcement officials, anyone who was hungry. When the sandwiches disappeared, a mountain of Whataburgers arrived. People from town dropped off bread, lunch meat, granola bars, bottled water. The first thing each volunteer said as they clanged through the door wielding supplies was, “I’m here to help.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the people of West and their love for life and one another since I left there Thursday afternoon. The explosion at the fertilizer plant rocked the entire town. People were killed and injured. Homes were shattered. Residents lost their jobs and everything they owned. But that cold reality is clearly no match for the stunning warmth of spirit that colors the community.

Who worries about getting lunch for reporters the day after the biggest disaster in town history? People in Texas, I guess. Or maybe just people in West.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.