WEST, Tex. — 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 4½ years and millions of dollars trying to determine what happened that day in West. The town, though, has already figured it out.
‘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 2½ 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 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 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.
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.
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.
Josey Visnovske was in his back yard in south Georgia when his phone buzzed. His boss, asking him to check his email.
Twelve first responders dead. Wanna go to West, Texas?
No, he didn’t. Not really. A former Marine and undercover police officer, Josey joined the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and became a fire investigator. He liked to work a burn site like a puzzle, to sift ashes for answers. But something about his intensity, his compassionate nature, made him a promising “peer responder” — someone who tends to the knotty hurt of emergency personnel who survive a terrible event. It was a calling he resisted. “It wasn’t part of the plan,” he says. But he agreed to go to West as his first deployment as a peer responder.
To his ATF colleagues would fall the task of investigating the cause of the West inferno — a probe that would put a federal team on the scene for 29 days, sorting through obliterated machinery for evidence, conducting 400 interviews, even combing through 300,000 pounds of corn from a demolished silo at the plant. It was one of the largest investigations ever undertaken by the ATF.
The fire caused the explosion.
But what caused the fire?
Josey’s job was more personal. Before he left Georgia for West, he took a handful of quarters and Marine Corps key chains and taped them to a target 100 yards away behind his house. Then he took his bolt-action rifle and, one by one, fired bullets through the objects. He hoped they could be his keys into West: something concrete but personal, a token of his own vulnerability.
He got there two days after the explosion and found a town reeling.
“Don’t mess with ’em now,” Judy Knapek told the stranger wandering into her fire station. The daughter of a West firefighter whose portrait still hung on the wall, Judy saw herself as the protector of the protectors. And her boys were in pain.
They’d just lost five men from their department of 29, including her cousins Robert and Doug Snokhous, and more were in the hospital. In all, about 24 first responders, from West and other jurisdictions, had made it to the scene, and half had died. Some walked away with fractures, a busted eardrum, a concussion; others were carried out in too-small body bags as a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” The difference was a matter of inches, of seconds. That was a puzzle far more confounding than the actual fire scene.
Josey made clear that he was there to listen, not investigate. He stayed in West for a week, meeting with responders one-on-one, trying to chip through the town’s stoicism. He gave out his bullet-pierced tokens and explained that he had done the same for his dad when he was dying of cancer.
May not mean anything to you, Josey said. But it means something to me. I’m here to help you, if you want help. I don’t have all the answers. And it ain’t my job to make you feel better. I can’t make the pain go away.
For those with serious injuries, surgery followed surgery. Robby Payne, the funeral director, was in the hospital for two weeks, unable to perform his duties for fellow firefighters who had perished. Jake Sulak, the gravedigger, buried seven of his fellow firefighters, digging and crying day and night for a week.
“I never knew the body could hold so many tears,” said Doreen Strickland, of the Abbott department.
There were at least 53 people with traumatic brain injuries or concussions. One young man — his face deformed by lacerations when the apartment complex disintegrated — hanged himself from a tree in his yard that October.
Three months after the blast destroyed her home, Cindy Nemecek Hobbs was living in a trailer up the interstate, trying to figure out her next step. She had worked through the chaos and arrived at a revelation. A friend told her that the Bible talks about “the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing,” and she thought about the fragrance she smelled before the blast.
“There were too many lives that were saved,” Cindy said to one of the founders of the History of West Museum, Nancy Hykel, who interviewed her for the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. “There should’ve been hundreds of us that were dead.”
Others in West were equally in awe, groping for an explanation.
“My gosh, how did people survive this?” said retired nurse Georgia Hutyra, who thought a plane had crashed in her back yard when the sound reached her house, two miles from the plant. “Because it’s just unbelievable that we didn’t have more people die when you look at the damage that was sustained in that area. It’s just unbelievable.”
Baptist pastor John Crowder saw the blast inspire people to ask big questions and seek big answers. Himself included.
“Now, looking back, I see why it was part of God’s plan to stay here as long as I did,” said the pastor, who came to West 20 years earlier, never intending to stay. “It didn’t make sense until the explosion. I came here as an outsider and I had gained the trust — I’d earned the trust — of the people in the community.” He took a lead role in helping West recover. “I think,” he said, “that was part of the plan.”
Townspeople talked about “angel stories,” the near-misses and unexpected graces born of the blast, and they processed it as a biblical accident with divine undertones. “God is good,” they took to saying, “and West is blessed.” Every person Nancy Hykel interviewed spoke of miracles. “There was a healing ceremony six months later,” she said, “and there was a double rainbow in the sky.” On social media, people shared a photo of the fire, with white flames seeming to form a cross in the middle of the blaze.
Disbelief nourished faith. A mythology grew.
If the judge hadn’t kept Stevie Vanek a few minutes longer . . .
If Jeanette Holecek wasn’t behind that old steel Chevy . . .
If Misty Kaska hadn’t found a coupon for Panda Express . . .
If Bryan Anderson hadn’t called his wife and told her to leave the house, and if Cindy Hobbs’s daughter-in-law hadn’t done the same . . .
Separately, they seemed like coincidences. Together, they seemed like a design.
But there was another set of ifs.
If only West had considered the risks of its encroachment toward the plant over the years . . .
If only the state fire marshal had been required to inspect the plant, and if only the plant had been required to install a sprinkler system . . .
If the fire department had been trained to recognize the gravity of this kind of blaze . . .
The town was not exactly thinking about that. Cindy’s mind kept reaching back into the past, to her immigrant grandparents: the trials they’d endured to come to West, to stay here, to run a business, to make a life.
“I don’t know how these people came across America in a covered wagon, not knowing what was laying ahead of them, you know?” Cindy told Nancy. “To strike out for parts unknown in a language they didn’t even speak. . . . They had fortitude that — I guess we all got it in our DNA from them.”
In 1997, she lost her teenage son in a car accident. On that drizzly night she looked out her front window and saw the yard filled with boys from the football team, standing in silent vigil. The town that her grandparents had built, against great odds, was made of more than just train tracks and farmland.
“We’ll get through whatever we’re given,” Cindy said. “And I hope that I can instill this in my children and grandchildren: that no matter what the obstacle is, have faith and push on and don’t let it get you down. Because something better is ahead of you. That’s why you’re here.”
Time passed. Rubble was cleared. Homes were rebuilt. Roads were repaved. Insurance-related losses climbed north of $200 million. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against West Fertilizer and the fertilizer manufacturers, CF Industries and El Dorado Chemical, alleging negligence as well as defects in the product that caused injuries and death. West Fertilizer was hit with $118,300 in fines for violating several rules about the handling of hazardous materials. Through an attorney, Adair, the plant owner, declined to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, 19 other sites in Texas each continued storing at least 10,000 pounds of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate within a half-mile of a school, hospital or rest home. At least an additional 170 sites held some quantity of fertilizer, many in wood-frame buildings.
As physical wounds healed, emotional ones festered. There was no clear villain to absorb the town’s anger — even as they sued the Adairs’ business, they perceived the family as fellow victims — and so people lashed out at the committee handling private donations and recovery money from FEMA.
And then insult to injury: Autopsies showed that two of West’s fallen firefighters had alcohol in their systems, and the state fire marshal issued a report critical of the West department’s response.
The town recoiled. These men were heroes — and volunteers. They had run toward danger so others could flee.
“Only two citizens died because 12 men stood up,” said Jimmie Duncan Jr., a firefighter from the Dallas suburb of Irving. “That’s the reality. And you can’t convince me otherwise.”
Outside the bounds of an investigation, Josey Visnovske, the peer responder, tended to the fire department’s psyche with his unorthodox and sometimes exasperating ways. He persuaded some firefighters to visit the blast site so they could see it in a controlled state — so it wouldn’t grow into something that haunted them. He confronted the West police officer who first reported the fire, and who was fogged by remorse because it sent his friend, a firefighter, to the scene.
“When’s it going to dawn on you that you killed your buddy?” Josey asked the officer point-blank, betting that this harsh tactic would shake him out of his stupor.
“I told him, ‘F--- you, that wasn’t my fault,’ and that’s what he wanted me to realize,” says Michael Irving, who helped evacuate the area and divert traffic before the blast. “He kept in touch with us, and made sure we were okay. If he had never done that, I don’t know where I’d be now.”
Josey kept coming back to West, and slowly people opened up. It took a year for Judy to even acknowledge to him that she was at the plant when it blew. It took longer for one firefighter, a particularly hard nut, to talk about where he’d worked at the time: the rest home.
All the while, the ATF continued to investigate the cause of the fire, building replicas of the storehouse and then using them to test burning scenarios.
Through this process, they ruled out the weather.
They ruled out a cigarette.
They ruled out faulty wiring.
And then, on May 11, 2016, more than three years after the explosion, investigators held a news conference in West.
“The fire has been ruled as incendiary,” an investigator said.
That meant someone set it.
What kind of town this is
Good Friday, 2017.
“They had to come up with something.”
Stevie Vanek had just finished frying 170 pounds of catfish at the Knights of Columbus.
“In a small town,” he says, “when somebody’s wife is running around, or someone gets drunk, people know about it.”
Finally, West had been given a sign that might help explain the inexplicable — but it wanted little to do with it.
The ATF’s announcement managed only to rip the scab off the wound, trip up the lawsuits and inspire a tremor of suspicion — much of it directed at the ATF. West was not on board for a whodunit, especially if there appeared to be no leads. The town had already spent years processing the blast, and it had arrived at something other than anger or blame.
Stevie, for one, couldn’t say why the blast happened, but he knows why he survived. And that was enough for him to make sense of it.
“The good Lord spared me,” he says, “so I could take care of Ann.”
A year after the blast, Stevie’s wife had a heart attack in Fort Worth that left her in a coma. Stevie called a former St. Mary’s pastor, who told him to recite seven Hail Marys. Stevie did, and two days later Ann woke up, he says. At a Knights of Columbus barbecue, West raised a heap of money for her medical bills. Two thousand plates of food were sold, in a town of just 2,800.
“What kind of town this is — ” Stevie says, then stops, tripped up by tears. “When I was in need, they gave it back. All those people who lost their homes: They were there for me.”
It is a town that is always throwing benefits — fish fries, silent auctions, chicken dinners — whenever there is a need. Three months after the blast, the 4-year-old son of a deceased firefighter got the idea for a hot-dog sale and raised $80,000 for a new playground. It’s there now, mere feet from the old plant site, and features a giant firefighter helmet and a toy ambulance for children to play in.
Maybe this was the reason Josey kept coming back to West, long after a peer responder should’ve closed the book. The people got under his skin. The firefighters trusted him. He was like them in certain ways — a hardheaded, softhearted country boy who shot hogs in the woods at night — but he had also learned, from working other cases, about how to pull people through their darkness. He was back for each blast anniversary, and the firefighters hosted barbecues for him. Judy became like a second mom to him, the fire chief like a father. In West he felt accepted and understood in a way that eluded him elsewhere.
One day Judy told him, “I’m so glad that I met you.”
“Okay, then we’re moving forward,” Josey replied.
“How do you figure?”
“You met me because a whole bunch of people died.”
“I never looked at it that way,” she said.
Josey filmed interviews with members of West’s fire department. He presented them at conferences on trauma, where he extolled their strength and talked about how people aren’t wired to process emotions at the speed of an iPhone. He talked about the need to wait. To listen. To go back. To remember as everyone else forgets.
He was always telling his two young sons that in life you gotta do your job, but you also gotta do your part. The latter was always trickier, scarier, less obvious, more thankless, and not necessarily part of your plan. It was the reason Josey was returning to West.
“The only time I go to church is when they burn,” Josey says. “But being with those people — it makes me feel like I’m surrounded by honor and grace. And freakin’ angels.”
The chief’s wife, Fran, believed that, without Josey, George would not have recovered emotionally.
“God sent you to us,” she told him.
Thunder sends a chill down the spine. A slamming door starts a cold sweat. Some wounds are visible — a light scar roping down the neck, a hitched gait from a cobbled ankle — and some manifest in slight panics, memory lapses, recurring nightmares, lingering guilt.
“I still won’t talk about it,” Judy says. “The others were hurt worse. In my eyes, they lost more. I’m just a little piece of it.”
“I’m always going to be incomplete,” says Robby Payne, the funeral director. “Healing is taking place. You’re learning to live with what you went through.”
“It keeps you down all the time,” says Jake Sulak, the gravedigger. “Sometimes a person tries to make sense of everything. Why this? Why that?”
“I can’t forget,” says Bryan Anderson, whose hearing will never be 100 percent. “I live it every day. And even more so through him.” His son Kaden, now 14, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but has come a long way; he’s starting high school and is an offensive lineman on the football team.
“We can’t stop,” Mayor Tommy Muska says. “You stop and you drown.”
He learned this after his son died in a car wreck in 2005.
“Nothing, including an explosion like this, compares to that,” he says. “It hardened me. It kind of prepared me for that time, as mayor.”
Over and over, he told his town what he had already learned: “We are going to make it. We are going to be okay. It’s going to take some time. But it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”
And the city reached milestone after milestone. Handsome homes of blond rock now populate the north end of town, a former wasteland. In 2015, a palatial new rest home opened, with a marble stone that acknowledges both the blast and “the presence of God” that day. June marked the end of the first year at the new high school, with its soaring ceilings and beautiful gym adorned with another West motto: “RISE UP.” The fire department is holding strong at 30 members, with several recruits. The town broke ground this summer on a permanent memorial to the dead, on a spot 25 feet from where an old Chevy saved Jeanette Holecek.
Not all is resolved. West is still sifting the ashes.
Individual lawsuits have been settling, and suffering is being measured in dollars.
The investigation into the fire itself is still open, and the ATF won’t comment on it.
The town’s case against the fertilizer manufacturers and West Fertilizer is scheduled for a January trial in Waco. It “will reveal the explicit explosion risks known by the manufacturers of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate,” says lead plaintiff attorney Steve Harrison, and “how little of that information they shared with anyone else.”
But the defendants maintain that the plant and the fire department were well-informed about the detonation potential of ammonium nitrate, and that it doesn’t explode if handled properly. They also argue that the ATF’s ruling of a criminal act opens a flurry of questions that make it “impossible” to identify the exact cause of the disaster.
Nevertheless, a “catastrophic incident” such as West’s remains a risk that “exists throughout the state of Texas,” according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, and probably beyond: Across 47 states, there are at least 1,345 facilities working with ammonium nitrate, a substance over which federal authorities have limited oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office. (West Fertilizer asserts that it was regulated by “at least eight government agencies.”)
While the Obama administration drafted new safety rules to prevent another West, President Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, delayed their implementation to review comments from key players — state governments that argue that disclosing information about chemical facilities poses a security risk, and industry leaders, who cite the ambiguity left by the ATF ruling that the West fire was criminal.
What you see in the wreckage depends on how you sort through it.
“Sometimes I think that maybe it happened,” Judy says, “because God said we were all drifting too far apart.”
That is the modern history of West: big farms swallowing small farms, Walmarts opening in Hillsboro and Bellmead, West’s Main Street getting quieter, young people going off to college and not always returning. Everybody used to know everybody, older folks say, but at some point the fabric of the town began to loosen.
“Maybe we were not going the direction He wanted us to,” Judy says, “and maybe when this happened — whether He let it happen or not — it pulled the town back together.”
Easter 2017 came and went, as did talk of death and resurrection.
The fourth anniversary came and went, as did talk of how to remember and how to move on.
“Through hard work, caring relationships, perseverance, and faith, we have discovered the awesome power of community,” Pastor John Crowder said during this year’s memorial at St. Mary’s. “The source of that power is the one who created community, by placing within each of us a need for one another.”
In the second row, Judy gripped Josey’s knee and cried, the first time she’d done so at a memorial. That day she, the chief and another firefighter went to the blast site, now patched with switch grass and evening primrose. There was no debris, no crater 90 feet wide. Just an empty lot with a plain white cross by the road. Josey asked for a group photo and was startled by what he saw through his phone.
Standing at the epicenter of their pain.
Arms around one another.
A few weeks later, Josey spoke at a trauma conference in Baltimore. His presentation was on how to plot a “road map” for moving forward after a terrible event.
“I’d 10 times rather be on a fire scene, digging one out right now, than being here,” he told the audience as he vibrated with nerves and emotion. “But I’m just trying to do my part.” Afterward, he escaped to the lobby, cowboy boots on, wristwatch smelling like smoke from all the fires he’s responded to.
The people of West “don’t want ‘oh, woe is me,’ ” he explains. “They want to be remembered because, I mean, it was a huge event. It may not be to the rest of the world, but it was to them.”
This is what he wants America to understand.
“What if all of New York blew up? This was one town that blew up. They are so proud of their little city and what they’ve accomplished historically. And then they got their ass handed to them. And guess what? They’re back.”
America needs towns like West, a president once said.
Perhaps this, too, is part of the plan.
When Josey explains it, he is in tears.
“I think I’ve got more out of West,” he says, “than they’ve got out of me.”
About this story
Audio and some April 17 recollections were courtesy of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. The interviewers who collected those oral histories were: Amber Adamson, Georgia Hutyra, Nancy Hykel, Jaclyn Lee Jeffrey, Stephen M. Sloan, and Cynthia A. Zahirniak.