WEST — As word spread of a spiraling fire at this Texas town's fertilizer plant, volunteers raced to protect families and elderly residents who lived nearby. Then came the deafening explosion.
Stores of ammonium nitrate exploded in a gigantic blast that registered as a small earthquake and sprayed debris miles away. Fifteen people were killed and more than 200 were injured by the blast, which caved in nearby homes and schools.
On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the blast in West, hundreds of people crowded into a pavilion at the small town's fairgrounds. They held a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m., the exact time of the leveling blast at West Fertilizer Co., as photos of the 15 people killed were shown on a large screen.
“I turned around, and all I could see was a big column of smoke,” Rev. Terry McElrath recalled. “And I thought, ‘Somebody has died tonight.’”
A choir sang “Amazing Grace” on a stage filled with ferns and flickering candles that had been decorated by middle school students with messages on posters including “Rise Up, West” and “Pray for West.”
Organizers said they wanted the ceremony to honor the past but also encourage looking to the future.
West was settled by Czech immigrants more than a century ago, and some of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren still call it home. Its Czech bakeries are well-known among drivers on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin. It's a place where even if residents “don't know you from Adam, you're welcome with a handshake and a hello,” said Brian Uptmor, whose brother, Buck, was killed in the blast.
The signs of physical progress are obvious: Gone are the dozens of wrecked homes with tongue-in-cheek “For Sale!” messages spray-painted on their walls, and about 70 homes are finished or in the process of construction. Two new schools and a nursing home to replace those destroyed by the explosion will soon give displaced students and elderly residents a better sense of normalcy.
But residents are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.
Payments from the city's long-term recovery fund, which received about $3.6 million in donations, have been delayed as organizers deal with unforeseen paperwork and federal regulations. The city's go-to person for that sort of work, City Secretary Joey Pustejovsky, was a volunteer firefighter who died in the blast.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said he's closely watching the emotional toll the blast has taken on the city's 2,800 residents, especially victims who are still recovering.
Muska said Thursday afternoon that the town was considering rebuilding the plant, noting that West's economy revolved around the company — but he acknowledged it was a highly controversial idea. He also said he was negotiating with a flag manufacturer and a recycling company to set up operations in West.
Holly Harris lost her husband in the explosion, Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Luckey Harris, who rushed to save other first responders when he saw smoke at the plant. She remains in their home outside West, where the fence now has a metal shield with her husband's initials above a fireman's hat.
She and others say they've chosen to push forward and not dwell on unanswered questions, such as what sparked the fire or what firefighters knew going in — or what could have been done to prevent it.
“It's just a choice that we've made that we're not going to be sad,” she said before Thursday's ceremony. “I mean, we are sad at times, but we're going to try to make everything a happy situation and try to get on with our lives.”