On April 17, 2013, the difference between life and death was just 13 minutes. That’s the interval between the time first responders arrived at the West Fertilizer Co. and the explosion that left 12 of them dead.
Scores of residents were injured in the blast. Three died. Homes, schools, businesses and other buildings were damaged or destroyed. A year later the emotional and physical scars are still fresh, but hope has blossomed, as well.
The KWTX-TV documentary “After West, Forever Forward" tells the story not only of what happened on that devastating night, but also of how the town has recovered over the past year.
It is narrated by survivors of the explosion, family members who lost loved ones, first responders, volunteers, and elected officials who all share how their lives and their community were impacted by the explosion.
WEST (April 17, 2014) “We are indeed blessed to be from West,” the Rev. Jimmy Sansom, pastor of the town’s First United Methodist Church, said as he delivered the prayer that opened an observance marking the first anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 including 12 first responders, injured hundreds of others, and forever changed the landscape of the tight-knit community.
A crowd estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 gathered Thursday night at the West Fair and Rodeo Grounds for the observance organized by the West 4-17 Forever Forward committee to remember the fallen, reflect on the past year, and to look ahead to the better days that speakers promised still lie ahead for the town and it's 3,000 residents.
“Greater things are yet to come,” said Dr. John Crowder, the pastor of West’s First Baptist Church, which will hold services this Easter Sunday, as it did on the Sunday after the explosion, in a field across from Aderhold Funeral Home on South Reagan Street that ordinarily serves as a parking lot during Westfest.
“This past year hasn’t been easy and the road ahead won’t be easy for some time,” he said, “but we must press on.”
“Together with God’s help, we will rise up.”
There’s no question the city has experienced the deep pain of loss over the past year, said the Rev. Terry McElrath, the pastor of Tokio First Baptist Church and the president of the West Ministerial Alliance.
“First and foremost,” he said, “we lost 12 of the finest and bravest individuals that any community ever possessed. They were volunteers who rushed in and stood their ground and ultimately gave their lives.”
“We are left to marvel at the courage and bravery of those we honor most proudly tonight” he said.
But also, he said, “We have lost any doubt that there are heroes among us...we have lost any doubt that God’s angels are watching over us, we have lost any doubt that West can overcome...we have lost any doubt that there are leaders in West who’ve helped to bring us to this point...(and) we have lost any doubt that God is alive because we have felt his presence, we have known his grace, we have experience his power.”
West Mayor Tommy Muska, whose family’s home was among those destroyed in the explosion, talked of the progress made in repairing and rebuilding, but said to him the true state of the city is reflected in things more mundane.
“The state of the City of West is Robby Payne trying to play golf... the Bohannans having a spring garden....(and that) my purple martins have returned.”
“The state of West is that the people of West are the most resilient people in the world. The state of West is that we are West and we are strong,” he said.
Nine days after the explosion, during a memorial service at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Baylor University President Ken Starr quoted poet Robert Frost who wrote “Good fences make good neighbors, and then added, “Today, there are no fences… because we are all together as neighbors. We are standing together, figuratively, arm in arm.”
Thursday night he told residents he brought the university’s greetings and well-wishes to the community.
“We admire you we salute you and we salute the great spirit that has been evident tonight,” he said.
“You will always remember, but at the same time you are determined West forever forward,” he said.
The disaster with such long-lasting effect unfolded in a matter of minutes.
West firefighters were dispatched to the plant at 7:32 p.m. on April 17, 2013, arrived at 7:38 p.m. and requested assistance from other departments at 7:41 p.m.
The plant exploded at 7:51 p.m.
Thursday night, a minute of silence marked the exact time of the powerful explosion.
As much as 64 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in the building, 28 to 34 tons of which exploded, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said.
An additional 20 to 30 tons in the building and another 100 tons in a nearby rail car did not explode, he said.
The total amount of ammonium nitrate on the site was about 150 tons, less than 270 tons that federal records indicated was stored at the plant.
By comparison, the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded on April 17 in West was about 12 times the amount used in the truck bomb that blew the side off of the Albert P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City.
The fire, the cause of which has yet to be confirmed, actually triggered two explosions, just milliseconds apart, Kistner said.
The first, which was the result of some combination of heat, building pressure from containment and shock from falling debris and equipment, triggered the second larger blast, he said.
Twelve first responders died in the explosion, hundreds of people were injured and three residents died, as well.
The blast destroyed or damaged scores of homes and buildings including a nursing home, an apartment complex and three of the town’s four schools, leaving a crater 93 feet across and 10 feet deep, and debris scattered debris over a 3,000-foot radius.
In the year since the explosion, officials say a number of homes destroyed in the explosion destroyed have been rebuilt or are being rebuild.
Scores of others that were damaged have been renovated.
Ground was broken on April 5 in West for the new West Haven Nursing Home, which will replace the facility that was destroyed in the explosion.
The 75,000-square-foot 120-bed facility will be constructed across North Davis Street from the site of the original facility.
The old nursing home was only about 200 yards from the West Fertilizer Co.
After the explosion residents were dispersed to care facilities throughout Central Texas.
The blast forced school officials to act quickly to come up with a plan that would allow students to finish the year.
The neighboring Connally ISD offered its old intermediate school and Connally teachers, staff and students scrambled over the weekend after the explosion to prepare the building.
Students in grades 7 through 12 finished the school year in the temporary quarters, while Pre-K through 6th grade students attended class at West Elementary School, which wasn’t seriously damaged.
When students returned last fall, those in Pre-K through grade five were sent to West Elementary School, while those in grades six through 12 were housed in more than two-dozen temporary buildings on the site of West Middle School where damaged facilities were razed.
Under the second phase of the district’s recovery plan, a new high school and adjacent middle school will be rebuilt at a cost of about $60 million.
The intermediate school won’t be replaced.
Fourth graders will attend the elementary school and fifth grade students will attend the middle school.
In February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the district a $20.8 million assistance package.
The district expects insurance to cover as much as $35 million of the cost, but is seeking more.
On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry announced another $4.8 million in assistance to rebuild the city's damaged water and sewer systems.