NewsWest 9 Special Report: Back to West, Texas - Part I

NewsWest 9 Special Report: Back to West, Texas - Part I

By Geena Martinez
NewsWest 9

WEST, TX - Almost seven months ago, the small Texas town of West was forever changed by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

Not only were people hurt but parts of the town were leveled, leaving many without a place to go.

It was April 17th, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.

"There's no words to express it," Mayor, Tommy Muska, said. "I heard it and then I saw it. I saw the air actually coming towards, the ripple of the air, you see that coming at you."

That day brings back haunting memories for Muska.

15 people died in the fertilizer plant explosion, most of them first responders. Hundreds more were injured, dozens of homes and buildings gone in seconds.

Muska, who's a volunteer firefighter himself, said the days after the explosion were the hardest.

"I had six very good friends that died," Muska said. "I still don't know how I've handled those deaths."

Nearly seven months later, the fertilizer plant site is cleaned up. It's a huge difference from the pictures in the days after.

The apartment complex that was ripped in half has also been cleared but some areas are still scattered with debris. Several homes are still boarded up and what's left of others is a constant reminder of what happened.

But in the time since the blast, the town is slowly coming back together.

110 homes have been demolished thanks to different organizations who've donated their time and work.

Streets that were once filled with law enforcement and media are now busy with bulldozers and work trucks.

"We've got about 35 homes right now under construction in zone two and three," Muska said.

One group who suffered a huge impact is the elderly. The West nursing home collapsed in the explosion.

"They lost their routine, they lost their friends down at the nursing home and they were put in another nursing home and they didn't know anybody," Muska said.

The West nursing home was the second largest employer in the city and they're rebuilding too. A patch of land has been bought where they'll place a brand new 71,000 square foot facility.

West High School was on the backside of the blast but the building was still severely damaged. Now high school and middle school students go to class in portable buildings.

"FEMA came in with three million dollars to help offset the cost of that temporary housing," Muska said. "They'll be in that housing for two years."

"The first few months, oh it was just devastating," Maria Galvan said. "I just didn't even wanna come to work and face this."

Galvan had just left her job at the West Thrift Store when the explosion happened.

The front windows shattered and the store lost a lot of its inventory.

NewsWest 9 was there when cleanup began. We caught up with Maria again when we revisited.

"It's just not the same like it used to be but now slowly but surely it's starting to get a little bit better," she said. "I haven't seen a lot of people that were my customers, my clientele here, I haven't seen, don't know about."

She's asked around and found a lot of them moved away after it happened. Maria said just passing by ground zero is eerie.

"When you go, you kind a get the chills going that road. You really don't wanna look," Maria said. "They just don't want nothing to do with that side of town right now."

That side of town has gained a lot of attention since April 17.

"You still get all these people coming in and ask 'Can you tell me where the explosion happened at?' and I tell them," Maria said.

There are still several questions about the future.

"We're an agricultural town," Muska said. "Our small farmers around here need a fertilizer plant. Now will it be built back here? I seriously doubt it."

Mayor Muska said they're also unsure about the long-term effects of the blast on people's health.

"Post-traumatic stress syndrome is prevalent because of the blast," Muska said. "People are angry, people are losing their tempers, they're stressed out. They have every right to be."

The city is encouraging residents to take advantage of special mental health services in Waco as they cope.

As the time passes, Muska said some of the toughest days are ahead of them.

"It's going into the holidays. The families are gonna have an empty seat and that's gonna be tragic for them," Muska said.

But just like they did back in April, Muska tells NewsWest 9, the City of West will keep moving forward together.

"I can't answer what normal's gonna be yet," he said. "I don't know what that's gonna look like but I know each and every time someone starts a new house, that's progress and that's what this town needs."

The West Volunteer Fire Department and West EMS both lost several members in the explosion. In part two of our special report, we'll tell you how they're rebuilding after their losses. Part two airs Thursday at 10 p.m.