Recovery Continues in West 5 Years After Plant Explosion

Head football coach David Woodard, like others in West, lost his home and his place of employment on a Wednesday evening five years ago, when an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant rocked the town, killed 15 and injured hundreds.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports Woodard chose to rebuild and rely on the resilience he saw around him as community members immediately went into action, both before and after the blast, which came at 7:51 p.m. April 17, 2013. There was never a question of whether he and his family would choose to stay, Woodard said.

The town saw some leave after the blast to start their lives over and has seen some return. Woodard watched as enrollment in West Independent School District dropped for four years after the blast, only to see it turn around as the district's recovery reached a new high point with the opening of a new joint middle school and high school building at the start of last school year.

He never had any doubt West would thrive again, Woodard said. Five years later, the signs of a strong, unbroken community are easy to find. Beyond the new buildings and houses in town, smaller threads of compassion are visible -- the same threads that held the town together after the tragedy, he and other West ISD employees said.

In addition to the 15 people killed, mostly first responders in the line of duty, and the hundreds of people injured, three of West ISD's schools and more than 350 homes were damaged or destroyed in the town with a population about 2,800.

A commemorative service marking the fifth anniversary of the explosion was scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at West Middle School/High School.

Woodard was driving through Marlin, returning from a track meet with about 20 students, when he heard the West Fertilizer Co. plant was on fire.

The team stopped for a quick bite and waited for word about whether to return and where to go, said Woodard, also the district's athletics director.

"I thought nothing of it really. I don't know why," he said. "Then one of the other coaches, he was in the back seat of the Ford Expedition and said, `Holy cow, they just said it exploded."'

Woodard asked what the coach meant. The coach replied simply, "It's bad."

West Intermediate School, declared a complete loss, was the closest school to the fertilizer plant, and West High School was also nearby. It sustained most of its damage on the north side, the district's website states.

Once Woodard checked that his family was safe, he and others could not get out of their heads how much worse the tragedy would have been if the blast happened at a different time of day, or if they had gotten back to the school a little earlier.

In the years that followed, West ISD has seen an almost 10 percent decline in enrollment, some of which can be attributed to families who were unsure whether West could ever thrive again, Superintendent David Truitt said.

West ISD's enrollment fell from 1,440 students for the 2012-13 school year to 1,311 in the 2015-16 year, as staffing levels fell from 205 to 189, according to the Texas Education Agency.

By the time the district opened its new combined middle school and high school at the start of the 2016-17 year, enrollment had turned around and grown to 1,325, and district employment was back up to 197.

And the increase in enrollment is expected to continue. By the 2021-2022 school year, West ISD is projected to have 1,395 students, Truitt said.

The new building and student growth have become symbols of what a community can do in the wake of a tragedy that left much of the town in ruins. And a quick drive up and down West streets shows more signs of a town thriving once again. Much of the success is tied to one of West's largest employers -- West ISD.

Maybe it is the sign staked in a front yard, urging residents to vote in the upcoming May school bond election for a new $20 million elementary school.

Maybe it is a new house in a once-empty lot or a train of school buses from other districts trekking into town for a tournament or competition at a West ISD facility that could not host such an event before the explosion.

Maybe it is the removal of the football stadium first responders used as a triage center in the aftermath of the explosion and the plans to build a new one in its place.

But often, the sign comes when someone new follows the access road off Interstate 35, turns past the Czech Stop Bakery to explore and decides to ask locals about how the town has managed to stay alive, Truitt said. Each time, residents relive the moments following the tragedy, mourning lost loved ones and sharing the blessings that helped keep the town glued together during the past five years, he said.

"My phone rang constantly that night of coaches in our area asking, `What do you need?"' Woodard said. "The guys from Riesel brought buses over here for us. Every coach around here knew and asked, `What do you need? What can we do?' At the time, we really didn't know."

Beyond outside financial support from state and federal agencies, a strong ingredient in the glue that binds the city comes from compassion shown by West ISD staff, administrators, community members and outside school districts in the weeks and months and years after the explosion rocked the town.

Those moments helped lay the foundation for future stability and two critical stages of recovery, said John Crowder, pastor at First Baptist Church of West.

"There's the immediate disaster relief and then there's the long-term disaster recovery, two different experiences," Crowder said. "In that relief time, we were able to say to the community, `God is good and that God is bigger than all of this.' Then we moved into the recovery time and were able to say everyone `God is good, and West is blessed' and we started looking at the blessing in the way that God is working."

Crowder has been in West more than 20 years and helped lead the recovery effort by setting up a center to organize volunteers, provide meals and showers to those in need, and work closely with district officials.

He, his wife and his daughter were part of the caravan returning from the track meet with Woodard the night of the explosion, he said. Crowder also lost his home that night. Now he is one of the newest members on the district's school board.

The day after the explosion, West ISD administrators and board members immediately went to work to find ways to get school back in session, said Charles Mikeska, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

Mikeska, other administrators and a group of volunteers made sure students did not miss more than two days of school before the district was up and running again, he said. They worked nonstop to prepare what was left of West ISD for class, and relied on the grace of neighboring school districts to house students and evacuate residents until another solution could be found, he said.

"The things that go through my mind mostly is the outpouring of the help from people you just can't imagine," West ISD maintenance supervisor Brian Renegar said. "I distinctly remember going to Connally (ISD) that Saturday, because we made numerous trips down there. They had a building that was shut down. They brought in their staff to wax the floors. They painted every wall. They put signs above their signs to cover them up that said West High School and Middle School."

Renegar still gets goose bumps when he thinks about seeing 13 school buses from another school district headed to West to help, he said.

Consistency became the most important element in helping students and the community move forward, said Amanda Adams, the district's executive director for teaching and learning who served as the West Middle School principal five years ago.

School officials weighed the options of doing shorter school days or only continuing certain subjects. At one point, they even considered canceling the rest of the year for seniors to take some of the pressure off students who lost everything, she said.

In the end, what officials found is they, like their students, wanted to cling to each other and chose to go on with the school year as much as possible, she said.

"I don't think we would've had the courage had we not had so many people step up," Adams said. "We had schools do things even like coming in and writing lesson plans for our teachers and provide what they could do with their kids the next day, because there was so much personal stress on our teachers. Without those gifts, I don't know."

For some, symbols of hope came in even smaller gestures.

Mikeska, Renegar and others rifled through unstable school buildings to pull out any salvageable d�cor from offices and classrooms to help teachers hang on to a sense of self. One search even included recovering military service medals for a principal. Others went digging for students' medicine and supplies kept in the schools, they said.

"I remember driving from the place we were staying out of town to into town on Monday morning, because I had to get to the church and do whatever I had to do," Crowder said. "I turned right at the Sonic, and there's the elementary school playground. There are kids on the playground Monday, after a Wednesday night explosion and the kids are running, playing, laughing and having a good time. It was that vision of what was happening at West Elementary School that told me there is going to be a tomorrow. We were going to get through this."

West ISD finished out the year where and how they could, then operated classes out of several portable buildings, which became known to students as "Portable City" for at least the next two years.

And slowly, whether it was eight hours at school or a two-hour baseball game, the ability to stay busy helped bring back life beyond the tragedy, Woodard said.

"It seemed like with me and my family, every waking hour we spent thinking, `What are we going to do? Where are we going to live? We don't have any clothes,"' Woodard said. "Being able to get back to school and being able to be around our staff and the kids, it made it to where those thoughts didn't enter your mind."

Others, however, credit Truitt's arrival two years after the tragedy with helping push West and its schools forward into the second stage of recovery.

Truitt arrived feeling as though he and his family had a calling to help West heal, he said. Previous administrators already had a plan of action in place. He just executed it, he said.

But Truitt will be the first to say he did not find despair when he arrived. Credit for the town's progress does not belong to him, he said. He found welcoming arms, and that is what helped move West beyond the explosion as community of faith and family, he said.

"I don't believe most towns would have made it through the explosion and rebuild process, but West is different than most towns," Truitt said. "We always talk about better than before. It doesn't mean things weren't great before the explosion. It just means the expectation was that we were going to come back better than ever. We're fighters. We're going to make sure that in the case of West ISD that our students have the best opportunities possible."

In addition to the new shared middle school and high school building, West ISD has already converted a school built in 1923 into an administration building. It is converting the old administration building into an alternative school, building a new athletics complex and has converted an old gym into a maintenance building.

The district is also on the verge of selling about 16 acres of property that will be divided into about 40 lots for new housing in the city, Truitt said. The blast destroyed 120 homes beyond repair, and 109 new homes have been built since, Mayor Tommy Muska said.

"We've gone through hell, and we've come out on the other side," Muska said.

He has been mayor since 2011 and has seen West growth beyond the rebuilding of West ISD. A new hotel has opened, new businesses have moved in downtown, and there are more opportunities for houses to be built in the city limits, Muska said.

"The city is only as good as its school district, and the school is only as good as the city," Muska said. "Without each other, both of them would die. If the city falters and declines, your schools are going to decline. If your school excels, your city is going to excel as well."

That sense of community is why freshman Caiden Miller is happy he moved to West ISD as a new student this year, he said. Miller had been at Midway ISD and made the switch after learning about the district and having the option because of his new stepmother.

The transition helped make the change from middle school to high school easier to handle, he said. He immediately jumped into engineering courses and after-school activities, he said.

"I never did anything after school. Now I'm in robotics and engineering and I do stuff for theater," Miller said. "It's the best year I've ever had and it's the best school I've ever gone to, honestly."

The sense of community is also why West Elementary School Assistant Principal Jana Pratka returned four years after her family and her parents lost everything, she said. After the explosion, Pratka moved up Interstate 35 to Aquilla ISD.

West ISD did not have any open positions at the time, but when family returned to West, she was more than happy to return with her two sons and help push West in the right direction, she said.

"One of the firemen killed in the accident was actually at our house that night," Pratka said. "He was Jackson's godfather, Luckey Harris the Dallas firefighter, was wrestling on the floor with my boys that night. Then my husband dropped him off at the fire, and he didn't come back.

"There was a lot that happened, and I think the healing part in all of it is just how close the community is and that they will do anything for one another."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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