West thrives, rebuilds

By Scott Mitchell

A&E/Sports Editor

Photos by Kathy Tran and Earl Ward |  A handmade “God bless West” sign serves to raise the spirits of those in the area.
Photos by Kathy Tran, Scott Mitchell Earl Ward | A handmade “God bless West” sign serves to raise the spirits of those in the area.

 

The explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured more than 160 on April 17, as reported by the Associated Press. Through all of the death and tragedy, the small town of approximately 2,800 hosted thousands of volunteers seeking to help those who were affected by the blast.

On April 19, the roads leading to the site of the explosion were still blocked by police cars. Smatterings of press representatives gathered around the town recording clips for their news segments but were unable to get near the plant.

Damage caused by the blast was visible from the police barricades.

Houses with blown-out windows recently sealed with plywood or storefronts displaying damaged signs could be seen among the devastation.

The Village Shoppe’s sign was missing a letter that had been blown off by the force of the blast.

Gladys Quilter, the store’s owner, said that the blast damaged not only the exterior, but also the interior of her store. “The ceiling is from the 1890s,” Quilter said while pointing up, drawing attention to shallow cracks running across the teal-colored wood.

Quilter was at her home when the fertilizer plant exploded, devastating four blocks around the site. Her home is far enough away from the plant that only her windows were shattered by the concussive blast. After the initial shock, Quilter rushed to West Rest Haven, the nursing home where her sister lives. As she drove down Reagan Street, she said the road had debris along it, and West Middle School and the surrounding apartments had suffered severe damage.

All of the major damage remained on the interior of the quarantined area, but much of the activity around West was outside of the zone.

The town bustled with people, many of whom were not residents of West.  Church groups came in to set up barbecue stations, food trucks drove in from other cities, Starbucks served coffee and the entirety of the festival grounds were transformed into a massive donation center.

 

Matt Kuta, his son Blaine Kuta, and his son’s friend Seth Wilson, from a church in Anderson, Texas, cook up hamburgers.
Matt Kuta, his son Blaine Kuta, and his son’s friend Seth Wilson, from a church in Anderson, Texas, cook up hamburgers.

 

In addition to the wave of community service, many federal agencies set up shop at the local Methodist church. Entities such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and law enforcement from surrounding counties used trailers as bases of operations.

The variety of community service was as diverse as the plethora of federal agencies present. Among those present was Therapy Dogs International, an organization that enlists volunteer-certified therapy dogs. The dogs serve a simple purpose — reducing the stress of people in disaster-stricken areas. Lee Boedeker, the main organizer of TDI at West, said, “The power of the dog is unbelievable.”

Various church groups also drove in from surrounding counties to give assistance to West. A group from Chapel Creek Fellowship in Fort Worth turned their trailer into a miniature kitchen. Debbie Day, wife of Senior Pastor of Chapel Creek Keith Day, said the group served two hot meals a day to more than 500 people.

Pastor Day said: “Whenever the community sees you reach out, it does something for them. It gives them hope, and it starts something.”

Danny MacDonald, a resident of Temple, Texas, drove down in his pickup with a trailer and barbecue grill in tow. He drove to West the night the explosion occurred, bringing $600 of food and drinks with him. He made three more trips by Friday. “I couldn’t just sit there being that close,” MacDonald said.

The fairgrounds, the center of community service, had been turned into a warehouse of necessities, from general hygiene products to pet food. Piles of items such as clothes, shoes, toothpaste and dog food were organized throughout the day. Jamie Jordan, a volunteer organizer at the donation center, said more than 800 volunteers helped to organize donations or feed people at the grounds.

At the end of each day, the goods were packed in boxes, put on pallets, wrapped in plastic and loaded onto 18-wheelers (many from HEB) to be driven to the main donation reception center in Hillsboro, the nearest town to West.

 

 Roy Lee, a victim of the blast, gathers necessities for himself.
Roy Lee, a victim of the blast, gathers necessities for himself.

 

Brookhaven College responded to the needs of West as well. On April 23, Brookhaven hosted the American Red Cross for a blood drive.

The drive was in response to the recent West and Boston tragedies and their inevitable need for blood donations.

Brookhaven nurse Mildred Kelley said, “When there is a tragic event such as West, the demand for blood goes up, hence the increased need for donation.” Kelley said that more than 25 people donated blood during the April 23 blood drive.

Brookhaven Phi Theta Kappa also put up a West, Texas donation booth during the 2013 graduation party.

There are many organizations hosting donation campaigns for West, such as the car show to benefit West in Waco, Texas, on May 18 and the variety of Support West T-shirts being sold. West still has a need, and there are plenty of outlets for the public to meet the need of the West residents.