Pat Doney, NBC 5 Sports
NBC 5's Pat Doney and photojournalist Noah Bullard shows how West High School turns to baseball following the deadly explosion.
Occasionally, in an extremely difficult time, the most important thing is to just hold on.
The fertilizer plant explosion that rocked the town of West on April 17 leveled multiple neighborhoods, killing 14 people, and left others in the community of about 2,800 trying to forget that dark afternoon.
Twin brothers Jackson and Nick Kucera were in their truck, less than 100 yards away when the plant erupted.
“My brother saw smoke coming from the fertilizer plant, and being adventurous kids, we drive there. We're probably 200 to 300 feet away and I remember telling my friend mowing his yard to get inside. Then it just blew. That's all I remember," said Nick Kucera.
“I thought it was an atomic bomb, a mini atomic bomb. Definitely very loud. It was the scariest thing I've ever been a part of," said Jackson Kucera. “It’s definitely something i hope i never experience again.”
The blast was so strong, it deployed the airbags in the Kucera’s truck. Once the high school juniors realized what was happening, they sprinted, barefoot, back home.
The brothers said their first instinct was to get home, find their family and pets and to get out of town. Once home, they learned their mother, Stephanie, suffered multiple facial lacerations and that their house was crumbling.
Stephanie Kucera said she was standing near the living room when the glass shattered and the French doors were ripped from the door frame and flung into the home.
"It was like what you'd see in a movie, everything coming at you in slow motion. I had my dog, and he took off running. So I took off running outside too,” Stephanie said.
The Kucera’s home is completely destroyed and is going to have to be torn down.
“All my childhood memories have been in that house (and now it's gone). Ya, but we can rebuild and make more memories," said Nick Kucera.
Many of those memories include baseball.
“Even though I think they try to act tough, and act like it didn’t bother them, it had to have bothered them some. They’ve shown some resiliency with dealing with it and I think they’re continuing to deal with it. And their level of play since then kind of sunk down a little bit, and now it’s rising back up to what they’re used to," said Cory Beckham, West baseball coach.
And that is high level baseball. The West Trojans are coming off a season that ended in the state championship game, with a roster filled with future college baseball players. Players, who right now, are trying to use baseball as a distraction from the recent tragedy.
“Knowing I don't have a home to go to right now, it's really good to be out here with everybody," said Jackson Kucera.
"I know one of our players, he went to six funerals in a five day span,” said Cory Beckham. “I think that, for a brief point of time during that day, for a two-hour period, they were more worried about baseball than all the other things going on in the community and at school and in their lives.”
The game provides a distraction, but the tragedy is always, at least in some part, on these players’ minds.
“When we get out here, there are times I think that their mind does wander," said Cory Beckham. "An example, the other day, while we’re out here practicing, the funeral procession went straight across the tracks to the cemetery a mile down the road. And so, right in the middle of practice, I didn’t even say anything, our players dropped what they were doing, and walked instantly over to the tracks, took their hats off, and gave their respects. It was just something, we just left and let them go, and when they came back, they came back and started playing baseball again.”
The Trojans feel like they’re not just representing West High School, but the entire hurting West community. And amazingly, the program’s team motto of nearly a decade fits the current team’s situation perfectly.
"We have a team saying, and it’s “hold the rope,” and that’s just passing it on to each teammate, and get it to the next person," said Jackson Kucera.
Hold the rope, and through these extremely difficult times, use baseball to hold on.
“It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," Jackson Kucera said. "We'll get there one day.”