If her son hadn’t stowed that damn ’66 Chevrolet Impala in her garage, Jeanette Holecek would have died the day her town exploded. But its sloping steel bulk was in just the right place, at just the right time, and it shielded her from the concussion that shattered her home.

If Misty Kaska hadn’t found a coupon for dinner at the Panda Express in Waco that Wednesday evening, she and her husband would have been in their house when it crumpled and ignited.

If the blast happened a little later, the old folks at the rest home would have been tucked into bed, vulnerable as the ceilings came down. If it had happened earlier, schoolchildren would have been sliced by flying glass and trapped in ruined classrooms. If it had been a Tuesday or Thursday, much of the town would have been at the sports fields for home games, right in the blast radius. But because it was a Wednesday, many were a safe distance away: at St. Mary’s for weekday Mass, or Bible study at the Baptist church, or the track meet near Texas A&M.

Blessings abounded in the Texas town of West, population 2,800, on that April day in 2013 when the fertilizer plant caught fire and its ammonium nitrate detonated — killing 15, injuring 252 and damaging or destroying 500 buildings.

At a house 1,000 feet from the plant, everything collapsed except for a cabinet with glass figurines of angels, intact and unmoved. At Holecek’s home, a bedroom wall was wiped clean of its decor except for a single wooden cross. In another room, two paintings still hung side by side: a generic store-bought landscape and a cousin’s hand-rendered lighthouse.

The first one was shredded. The second was not even askew.

“You cannot tell me that there is not a higher being that knows Wayne’s painting couldn’t be replaced,” she would say later. “There had to be something protecting us.”

Investigators have spent 41/2 years and millions of dollars trying to determine what happened that day in West. The town, though, has already figured it out.

Four members, past and present, of West’s volunteer fire department: Jake Sulak, top left, has dug graves for 35 years; Stevie Vanek, top right, volunteers with the Knights of Columbus; Judy Knapek is the town’s first and only female firefighter; and Tommy Muska is — just like his father was — the mayor and an insurance salesman. (Photos by Cooper Neill and Lawrence Jenkins for The Washington Post)

‘What makes this country great’

Two American cities were wracked by explosions during the third week of April 2013. West, Tex., is the one you didn’t pay as much attention to.

On April 15, a small but vicious pair of pressure-cooker bombs ripped through the finish-line crowd at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring 264. There were obvious villains and emerging heroes, and the subsequent manhunt transfixed the nation. “Boston Strong” became a national mantra.

West was a far larger event, though the circumstances were murkier. The April 17 explosion was roughly five times the size of the blast of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which was also generated by ammonium nitrate. It injured almost 10 percent of West’s population, registered as a magnitude-2.1 tremor and flung debris as far as 21/2 miles away. It was as if a twister had come through town carrying an atomic bomb.

“It was literally the worst thing I have ever seen,” said Mike Westerfield, a 37-year veteran of the Waco Fire Department. “I mean, I’ve never seen destruction like that.”

West registered only briefly on the national radar. Donations poured in and cable news crews camped for a while outside the cattle-auction building, but it soon became clear that there was no link to terrorism. For many, the narrative ended with President Barack Obama’s speech at an April 25 memorial in Waco.

“America needs towns like West,” he said in front of flag-draped caskets. “That’s what makes this country great — is towns like West.”

We tend to treat small-town America as both a cliche and a touchstone, of what we used to be and what we still aspire to. What, then, to make of West’s calamity?

The blast was a culmination of a century of history, of immigration and agriculture and government and growth. It was also the prologue to an epic investigation, a lingering mystery, a baffling twist and a series of epiphanies — some practical, some incredible — on what it means to prosper, to doubt, to be safe, to recover, to believe, to be a community.

The West Fertilizer plant burns before it exploded on April 17, 2013. (Katie Campbell)

April 17

The town gravedigger was locking up the cemetery when he saw smoke on the horizon. Jake Sulak pulled the white iron gates shut and climbed into his pickup. Looked like his fellow volunteer firefighters would need help.

Bryan Anderson, who owned the local pizza joint, was at the Exxon, on the way home with son Kaden from religious-ed class. “Look at all that smoke, Dad,” the 9-year-old said. Bryan called his wife at their bluffside home overlooking the town, and he asked her to step outside and see what was happening.

Next door, Stevie Vanek was having a beer with the justice of the peace when his pager started buzzing. The judge kept gabbing, but then the dispatcher called through his radio: “Structure fire at the West Fertilizer plant.” At that, Stevie broke away. He’d have to grab a truck at the fire station.

A fourth-generation Westite, Stevie was manager of a glass company and part of the town’s volunteer fire department, established in 1894 by the community of Czechs and Germans who’d settled on this blackland prairie to raise cotton, corn and cattle. When the hand-cranked alarm sounded, farmers, grocers and doctors would race toward danger to protect the world they were building together.

And now the heirs of this tradition converged at the maelstrom on the northeast end of town:

The mayor, Tommy Muska, parking his son’s Ford pickup on the grassy shoulder by the high school, about a quarter-mile from the fire.

Judy Knapek, an elections administrator for the county, arriving in her own truck and wondering about her cousins already fighting the blaze up close.

The local funeral director, Robby Payne, who balked at the size of the blaze and started conferring with other firefighters about whether to back the heck up and figure out a Plan B.

The smoke was now whipping on the wind toward nearby homes.

In her small brick house 1,000 feet away, Cindy Nemecek Hobbs was sitting on her couch reading, unaware of the fire and wondering about the sweet fragrance wafting through her screen door.

What was it, she wondered. Not the honeysuckle. Not the roses.

And then the phone rang.

Where are you? her daughter-in-law asked. There’s a fire at the fertilizer plant. There’s a chance it could explode.

The fire and explosion

While watching the massive fire from afar, Derrick Hurtt captured the moment the fertilizer plant exploded. (YouTube/Derrick Hurtt)

The plant was a mom-and-pop operation, a distribution center where farmers picked up custom mixes of fertilizer to boost crop yields. It was built in 1962 a half-mile outside West. As the harvests grew, so did the town. In 1967, the rest home opened 629 feet from the plant. In the early ’70s, a two-story apartment complex was built even closer. Then a playground and basketball court, a mere 249 feet away.

When the plant was struggling in 2004, local farmer Donald Adair bought it and took steps to keep it running as the West Fertilizer Co. The community was grateful. And if there were any concerns about safety — the wooden storehouse had no sprinkler system and the Adairs’ insurer once declined to renew its policy — well, a 1966 government report had declared the chance of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate detonating in a fire as “small or even nonexistent.”

But now the gravedigger was peering over his steering wheel at flames the color of blood, lashing the gray sky above the engulfed plant, so high he couldn’t see the end of it. Biggest, meanest fire he’d ever seen.

A former firefighter drove by. The plant was “going to blow,” he warned, and everyone should evacuate. But then came a current firefighter, whose day job was at the plant. The fire, he told them, “could never get hot enough for it to go off.”

The fire department’s hoses were too short to reach the nearest hydrant, at the high school. So an engine pumped water from a tender truck as four firefighters tried to direct the hose into the open northeast portal of the storehouse, and the inferno inside. The heat vaporized the water before it could reach the flames.

“Pat, that place scares me,” Stevie Vanek said to a fellow firefighter in his truck as they approached and inhaled a chemical odor, something harsh and horrifying.

Adair had been at church when his cellphone rang. The 83-year-old plant owner came speeding up to the perimeter that first responders had established at the site. He could see that the building was a total loss.

“Get the people off the street and off the yard,” he told a firefighter.

There were about 300,000 pounds of ­fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate on the premises. It was planting season, after all.

Only 22 minutes had passed since a West police officer first caught a whiff of smoke.

That’s when radio traffic suddenly went dead.

Smoke rises after the explosion. (Joe Berti/AP)

The mayor’s baseball cap flew off.

The noise could be heard dozens of miles away.

Close by, everything seemed to happen in silence.

A scythe of light swept over the ground. The earth collapsed upward around the plant. Fiery hunks of metal and concrete streaked away like meteorites returning to space. A rippling dome of air bloomed from the explosion, crushing the firetrucks, racing out in a wall of pressure, flattening grass.

It threw Robby Payne, the funeral director, into a metal tank. It heaved Tommy Muska, the mayor, backward six feet. It pushed the rails of the train track together into one ribbon of steel, and it tipped over a rail car containing 200,000 pounds of fertilizer. It blew out the back walls of the apartment complex, and then the front walls, carrying some residents into the parking lot. Then it hit Bryan and Kaden in their truck, collapsing the cab and blowing the windshield into their faces.

“Are we dead?” Kaden screamed. “Are we dead?”

“I don’t know,” shouted his dad, reaching for him through shattered glass. “If we’re dead, we’re dead together, because I can feel you.”

Up on the bluff, Bryan’s wife was knocked off her feet. Behind her, the front windows of the house exploded, and glass shards riddled the couch she had just been sitting on.

Across from the apartments, the rest home folded like a house of cards. At the schools, door frames split, ceiling tiles dropped and glass flew into corkboard.

All around West, air bags deployed. Car trunks opened. Tires went flat. Garage doors crumpled out while windows blew in. Insulation dropped from ceilings. Water mains cracked underground.

A mile away at St. Mary’s, the stained glass splintered.

Six miles away, in the town of Abbott, front doors popped open.

Ten miles away, a fisherman on Aquilla Lake ducked, thinking his boat was being struck by lightning.

Twenty-nine miles away, at a church in the town of Italy, Tex., an Iraq War veteran whispered to his brother-in-law, “That was an explosion.”

And back in West, things started falling from the sky. An 800-pound slab of the plant’s foundation crashed through the rest home’s roof, cartwheeling through a wall and out onto the street. The front end of a forklift landed in Jeanette Holecek’s yard as she lay by the Chevy. A fireball flew past between Cindy Nemecek Hobbs and one of her neighbors. The fire chief, George Nors Sr., was dazed, bleeding from the ears. Judy Knapek looked up and saw a mushroom cloud. A giant U-shaped pipe landed at her feet and disintegrated.

The trees were on fire. The gravedigger, still in his truck, thought he was dead until bloodied men came pounding on his window.

Walls of black smoke rolled down streets, past houses ignited by flaming debris. The interstate was a flashing artery of red and blue. Firefighters from other towns descended on West, tried to put out fires at the schools, clambered into the apartment complex to unearth residents buried by crumbled walls. In the ruins of the rest home, townspeople ripped doors off their hinges to use as backboards, piled some residents into the beds of pickup trucks and pushed others down the street in their wheelchairs.

Aftermath of the blast

Paul Lannuier drives around West after the explosion and finds neighborhoods choked with smoke, an apartment building destroyed and a house engulfed in flames. (Courtesy of Paul Lannuier)

West residents raced around town, shouting over the sirens in search of lost family as evening descended and helicopters circled. The electricity was out everywhere except, miraculously, the football field, which became the triage site.

Misty Kaska had raced back from Panda Express in Waco and, because she is a nurse, went straight for triage. She found plenty of walking wounded, but surprisingly few injuries proportional to the physical violence around her.

This is it? she thought. Where are the missing limbs?

Doreen Strickland, the president of the Abbott Volunteer Fire Department, helped one old man from the rest home into the passenger seat of her fire engine. In the back were a dozen of his fellow residents. He turned to Doreen.

“Am I the grand marshal?” he said in a small, raspy voice.

Doreen looked at him. What else could she say? “You sure are.”

“And I’m in front of the parade,” he said, lost in his delusion.

“You’re leading the parade,” Doreen said gently, as she piloted the engine around smoking boulders of debris. “You’re a very special person right now.” Turning her head to cry, she rolled down the window for him, and he started waving at armageddon.

Top: Firefighters from across Texas raced to West and found what looked like a war zone. (LM Otero/AP) Middle: Two people died in the West Terrace apartment complex, 450 feet from the blast. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Bottom: On the first Sunday after the blast, with First Baptist Church damaged, congregants met in a field at the south end of town. "God is bigger than this," Pastor John Crowder said during the service. (Charlie Riedel/AP)