Seeds of destruction: the city of West

Andrea Nedorostova was born and raised in the second biggest city of Czech Republic called Brno. Playing tennis competitively her whole life brought her to the United States when she received a scholarship to attend Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Upon graduation with a bachelor's degree in communication, she moved to Austin, TX to pursue a master's degree in journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.

When she visited West, she immediately felt like she belonged. West residents treated her like one of their own. Andrea was captivated by their kindness, and mainly, by the way they handled a difficult time in life. As an aspiring journalist, she realized the story of West's recovery had to be told.

This is the first part in a two-part series about the people of West inspired by the resilience and strength they found within their small enchanting community.

Seeds of Destruction: How a Fertilizer Plant Put the City of West on the Map...and then Nearly Wiped It Out

The citizens of West slowly started emerging from their homes, or what was left of them, and stood surveying the damage as the shock from the explosion of the West Fertilizer Company plant settled in. The explosion destroyed more than 150 houses in the surrounding area, three out of four school campuses and a 22-unit apartment complex. The overall scope of the damage is estimated to cost the city around $100 million according to Tommy Muska, the mayor of West.

Out of 2,800 people that live in West, the blast injured over 200 and killed 15, including 10 first responders, some of whom were not West residents. Those who experienced the explosion describe it as a wave of energy that went through their houses mostly by breaking glass in the windows. The energy seemed to suck everything in and then spit it out, lifting the houses in the meantime. As a result, many houses collapsed.

City emergency workers divided the area surrounding the plant into three zones according to Larry Hykel, a local building contractor. Zone one had fairly minor damages with mostly broken windows, some older houses shifted on their foundations, and houses had cracks in the walls. In zone two, the damages were more severe with some houses getting knocked off their foundations. Zone three was the site of the explosion and its immediate surrounding area experienced the most extensive damages. "I built some of these houses in the 70s and 80s, and now we are rebuilding them again," Hykel said.

April 17, 2013, is the day that changed the functioning of the whole city. Sudden lifestyle change affected everyone, especially the mayor. "Before, we had problems with dogs and potholes, and now we have FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] issues and long-term recovery issues," Muska said. "My job as a mayor is 100 percent different than what it was before the explosion." According to Muska, a significant amount of work has been done since the city has started rebuilding. "By March 2014, which was 11 months after the explosion, 86 homes were under construction and 111 rebuilds have been completed," he said. The rough estimates of people who are involved in rebuilding think it might take at least three years to rebuild the town.

Texas is the state with the largest Czech-American population in the nation. Muska has no doubt that the Czech heritage has increased the speed of recovery. Approximately 70 percent of West residents have a Czech heritage. Other nationalities like Germans are also represented, but on a much smaller scale. "Most of the Czechs were farmers," Muska said. "They came because of the university lands, which was a land that was sold by the state of Texas, and it was very reasonably priced." According to mayor Muska, the new beginning after the explosion resembles the situation when immigrants from other countries came to West to start a new life. "It was hard to get here," Muska said. "But I think that the same endurance and that same tenacity our ancestors had coming here is showing by the Czech-Texans in this town that are rebuilding and moving forward. Our people are not waiting for anybody, they are just rebuilding."

The city of West was founded in 1882 thanks to the railroad that went through the area. According to Muska, when the railroad was built, a man named Thomas West, who was a postmaster and a landowner, opened the first building and established the city of West. The railroad did not only play a significant role in the establishment of the city, but also during the explosion when it saved the town from even more destruction. "When the explosion happened, it hit the elevated part of the railroad tracks, which forced the air up," Muska said. "If the tracks were not elevated, and it would have been flat, the force of the concussion and air would have went straight across and caused more damage."

The fertilizer plant that helped the city of West flourish ironically sowed seeds of its devastation. As farming became the main source of making a living for local people, building a fertilizer plant seemed beneficial. Even though the fertilizer plant was built outside the city, the city eventually grew in the plant's direction. "Over the years, it changed to a special market, which is that they combined different fertilizers for farmers, and that's when they started stacking and holding the ammonium nitrate along with other chemicals," Muska said. "So, that's probably when it became dangerous, but nobody really gave it a second thought." Currently, there are no plans to rebuild the plant, however, Muska believes that the area needs a fertilizer plant because the small local farmers depend on it as West is an agricultural community. Muska said it would go a long way if they got a new, safer plant, but he knows that it would be a large jump for the people of West to accept it.

April 17, 2014 marked the first year anniversary since the explosion. The city of West organized an evening memorial service called 4/17 Forever Forward. "Forever," because the city will never forget the terrible tragedy, and "Forward," because that is the direction that the city has chosen to go.