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40 Greatest Stories

Love and Loss in a Small Texas Town

West was just a place where people pulled off the highway to buy kolaches. Then it exploded.
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Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Until April 17, West was known as more of a glorified rest stop than a town. It was simply Exit 353 off I-35, the place to stop on the way to Dallas or Austin to buy kolaches, the pastries that are the Czech people’s main contribution to world cuisine. They would get no farther than Czech Stop, the bakery/gas station/convenience store along the east side of the highway. Opened in 1983, Czech Stop is such a familiar destination for travelers that a rival gas station closer to the northbound exit briefly attempted to piggyback on its success by naming its upstart kolache concern That Czech Bakery, an attempt to fool the few people who had yet to take Exit 353.

The only other attraction in West is Westfest, the Czech heritage festival held at the rodeo grounds every year since 1975. It brings almost 20,000 visitors to town over Labor Day weekend. They come for arts and crafts booths, polka dancing, beer, and, yes, kolaches. Brittney Kolar is the reigning Miss Westfest.

That narrow biography began to expand during the days following the explosion, as volunteers and reporters and news show hosts, such as Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper, rushed to the city. The world learned about West’s volunteer fire department and that a significant part of the town had been built, seemingly against all logic, around a fertilizer plant. They met some of the residents. The population hovers around 2,800, so you could meet just about all of them over a weekend, especially if you went to church on Sunday. They learned to pronounce consonant-heavy Czech surnames. They saw the stoic manner in which people from West kept moving forward, a singular combination of Czech tradition, Texan grit, and small-town ways.

My grandfather Ben Sulak (pronounced “SHOE-lock”) moved to West not long after he was born in 1910 and lived there for much of the next 75 years, until he died of a stroke on a Main Street sidewalk. West was then what it is now, a small farming community—built around the railroad tracks and mostly populated by Czech immigrants like my great-grandparents—that willfully resisted growth, turning down offers over the years from Walmart and outlet malls to build there. It is the kind of place where everyone knows nearly everyone else, and even if you don’t live next door, you’re still a neighbor. It is the kind of place where people keep mowing their lawns even after their houses have been destroyed.

My parents moved to West shortly before I was born in 1974. In 1978, they built a house on Reagan Street, within eyesight of the fertilizer plant. The neighborhood wasn’t finished then. It was a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath place they got a deal on because in the corner of their lot stood a high-voltage electrical transmission tower. When I was growing up, my brother and sister and our friends used one of the tower’s legs as home plate in our front-yard baseball games.

The remains of West Fertilizer Co.

The fertilizer plant stood about 500 yards away, always looming in the distance. I could see that plant, and smell it, every day I was there. I played basketball in West City Park, across the railroad tracks from it. I was in the first sixth-grade class that attended the school down the road from the park, back when it was a middle school. I had a fight with a kid in the apartment building that was destroyed; we later made up and he showed me his uncle’s collection of throwing stars. My great-grandmother Ellen lived out her last days in the nursing home behind that apartment building.

For one reason or another—whether it was friends, or school candy sales, or simply to borrow something—I have been in almost every one of the houses in Zone 3, the area of West most severely damaged by the blast. I am a member of the RSP, the Reagan Street Posse, the name the kids who grew up there adopted. Yeah, we didn’t think very long about the name.

That neighborhood was my home. By the time you read this, it will all be gone.

Brian and I are sitting at Wolf’s Sports Bar on Oak Street, drinking schooners of Miller Lite and catching up. I do not call him Peanut. He was in my younger sister Samantha’s class all through school. I haven’t seen him since he moved back to town. After we quickly move through the past decade or so, I ask him about April 17. A month has passed since the explosion.

He was on the phone with someone when the plant exploded, he says, but he still can’t remember whom he was talking to. “That’s a blank,” Brian says. He can only remember how what he saw “went from just a smokestack to a by-god freakin’ mushroom cloud.” He didn’t feel a boom.

Brian pulled through the West High School parking lot off Jerry Mashek Drive, across the railroad tracks from Reagan Street. He drove onto the grass and parked; his was the third truck there.

“I jump out, and I had my stethoscope, BP cuff, stuff like that with me,” he says. “Just in my pockets and stuff, just in case.”

When he got out of his truck, he saw Emmanuel Mitchell and Eddie Hykel, both volunteer firefighters, and Chilo Rodriguez, who works with Brian’s brother, Buck. Their clothes had been blown off.

“Basically, what’s holding a shirt on, in front, on Chilo, is the band around the neck,” he says. “Just like someone got a pair of scissors and went zipt. Same thing with the pants. His waist was still on, but a whole leg was blown out the back. And he’s bleeding out the ears and the mouth and the nose. And Emmanuel’s the same.”

His paramedic training took over. “I’m just grabbing ’em, setting ’em on the tailgate, doing quick triage, just automatic—boom, boom, boom,” he says. “Emmanuel’s sitting there. If I could have taken a picture, that is the definition of a thousand-yard stare. He was just sitting there. He was not fixed on anything. Just staring out. Like, staring through everything, through space and time. He was like”—Brian switches to an affectless monotone—“ ‘I told ’em: we gotta go, boys. We gotta go.’ Looked like he had a wound on his leg. I didn’t know if it was shrapnel, if he fell, or what. His hand was swollen up.”

Eddie, the other volunteer firefighter, was hysterical, crying, repeating that he told those boys we need to go. Because of the shock and the adrenaline surge, Eddie didn’t realize he had a broken collarbone. And Chilo kept saying that Brian needed to call Buck, tell him that they needed to move the horses. Chilo tried to give him his keys and billfold, confused, patting pockets that weren’t there anymore.

“I’m like, ‘Chilo, hey, baby, don’t worry about it,’ ” he says. With help from some other men, Brian took Eddie and Chilo to the ambulances parked close to the high school. They found two other volunteer firefighters already there. One had been literally blown out of his boots.

When the ambulances left, he finally got around to calling his brother, Buck.

“I didn’t know Buck was there,” he says. “I had no idea. Chilo and Buck went over there, and I didn’t know anything about it. When he didn’t answer his phone Wednesday night, I knew. Nobody told us.”
• • •

When I was a senior in high school, I stepped on a belt buckle while hurriedly getting ready for school one morning. After my dad pulled the buckle’s prong out of my foot, he took me to the clinic that Dr. George Smith opened in 1975. Dr. Smith told me to stay off it for a while. We paid him $30 for that advice.

Dr. Smith has been in his new office less than a week. It’s in a space formerly occupied by JoAnn’s Bridal, on the other end of Davis Street, near downtown. The reception area looks like a normal doctor’s office, mostly because it’s furnished with what he was able to pull out of his old clinic, after it was destroyed in the explosion. It only seems like an odd location when you go through the door where the exam area is. At the back of the three cubicles where he sees patients is a trio of dressing rooms. In the room that houses his office and a setup for minor surgeries, the entire back wall is mirrored.

“It beats what we had, which was nothing,” he says.

The night of the explosion, Dr. Smith was at home, watching TV with his ambulance radio nearby. He runs West’s emergency medical services, in addition to serving as medical director for West Rest Haven, the nursing home up the street, and running his own clinic. He’s never completely off the clock.

Eddie, the other volunteer firefighter, was hysterical, crying, repeating that he told those boys we need to go. Because of the shokc and the adrenaline surge, Eddie didn’t realize he had a broken collarbone.

At 7:29 pm, an ambulance radioed in to dispatch, reporting it was on its way to a fire at West Fertilizer Co. Normally Dr. Smith takes care of the firefighters while they take care of the fire, but as he backed his truck into the street, he decided to head to the nursing home first, to move his patients. If the wind changed direction, it would send toxic chemicals their way.

His plan was to shelter in place—move everyone as far away as possible, turn off the air conditioning, put wet towels under the doors. He was still dealing with a fire. “If you take them outside the building and then the smoke changes,” he says, “you’ve put them into what you’re trying to avoid.” Smith and the nurses worked as fast as they could, but it was a slow process.

Then the plant exploded.

Dr. Smith pulls his iPhone out of the holster on his belt and scrolls through his photos until he finds the one he wants me to see. “That’s where I was at when the explosion happened,” he says. It’s taken from outside West Rest Haven. Asphalt shingles hang limp in tattered sections, almost touching the ground in places. It’s the only thing that signifies the pile of rubble was once a building.

“I was under that,” he says. He had sustained a gash across the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know how I got out of that alive. In just the blink of an eye—you can’t imagine the power of that explosion. You know how close it is. It’s less than 200 yards. In a blink of an eye, you get this tremendous concussion, you’re knocked on the ground, and then the roof is on top of you, and the ceiling and the lighting and everything else between the roof.”

Smith is the medical commander of Texas-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, which has taken him to Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. Now disaster had come to him. He checked on his family first. His wife, Jean, was in his truck. She doesn’t normally go with him on calls, but she did that night. She had been doing some paperwork and wanted to take a break. Jean was shaken up, but okay. His son, Kevin, lives nearby, two doors down from West City Park, across from the plant.

“He just put a new roof on and paid a little extra money to get the fire-resistant roof, and I’m convinced that’s what saved his house from burning,” Dr. Smith says. The house next door did burn. “He had been in the living room watching television in front of the bay window. He’d gone upstairs to do some work when the explosion happened. Had he stayed downstairs, the bay window blew in where he was sitting. I’m sure it would have killed him.”

Once he had accounted for his family, Dr. Smith “immediately went from nursing home medical director mode to disaster mode.”

After moving some oxygen cylinders to the community center on the other end of town, where patients would be taken, he noticed the lights of the high school football field were lit, and saw they were triaging people. He stopped to ask where incident command was.

“The nurse who was triaging there took one look at me and said, ‘You’re no longer Dr. Smith. You’re George Smith, patient. Sit down, you’re bleeding,’ ” he says. “So I did—for about two seconds until she turned around, but I had too much work to do.

“For the first time in my life, I was absolutely overwhelmed,” he says.

Dr. Smith went to a helicopter, because he knew they had satellite radios. He called Sam Tessen, the executive director of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, in Austin. He told Tessen to use his political contacts to tell Emergency Management in Austin that there had been “a massive explosion, with hundreds of casualties. ” He was guessing at that point.

Frank Patterson, director of emergency management for McLennan County, had just arrived and was setting up. Patterson asked if he would stay with the Hill County justice of the peace and help identify bodies. Dr. Smith was sitting in his truck, waiting for them to be able to get to the bodies, because it was still an active fire. While he was waiting, that’s when he did what he calls “the bloody interviews.” Smith became the voice of the town, talking to CNN’s Piers Morgan and TV reporters from Dallas and Waco and wherever else, speaking as a resident, a doctor, a neighbor. His face—smeared with blood, eyes just this side of wild—was one of the most memorable images of that first night.

At 4:30 am, he went to Hill Regional Hospital—“because I knew Hillcrest and Providence were being slammed”—and got his cut sewn up. Then he went to his friend Ben Ranzinger’s house, south of town, where he’s been living since. But he wasn’t there long.

“I got to Ben’s house about 5:15, and had to leave at 5:30 for Good Morning America,” he says. “I didn’t sleep for 36 straight hours.”

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