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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.
By |
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Kim Woodard and her husband, David, were a couple of years ahead of me in high school. I remember Kim in black satin and rhinestones, twirling for the marching band, and David dusty in catcher’s gear, playing baseball for his father, Wayne.

On April 17, Kim’s mother, Cathy Kaska, called to tell her about the fire. They live about half a block away from each other on Reagan Street. Kim had just picked up her daughters, 9-year-old Dayla and 14-year-old Kearstyn, from their CCE class at St. Mary’s Catholic School across town.

Kim went outside to see what her mom was talking about. Two of her neighbors pulled up and told her that everyone was starting to spray water on their roofs so their homes wouldn’t catch fire. Just as she turned to get her hose, the fertilizer plant exploded. She was thrown to the ground. At least that is what she’s been told. She doesn’t remember.

Kim and David Woodard

She doesn’t remember much of anything until she and her daughters ended up back in the front yard. Kearstyn’s bedroom and Dayla’s playroom are at the back of the house, closest to the blast. The ceiling collapsed on them. Kearstyn was fine; Dayla had scratches on her eyelid and behind her ear, but she was okay, too. They got out through a window. Kim and the girls were sitting in the front yard together, trying to figure out what to do, when a shirtless man in an El Camino pulled up.

“He told us we needed to evacuate because they were expecting a second explosion,” Kim says. “And we didn’t have a vehicle to evacuate, so we got in the car with a strange guy. In an El Camino.” She laughs at how crazy it must sound. “But some guy that we didn’t know, he took us to the community center.”

Her husband, David, the high school football coach and West ISD’s new athletic director, was coming home from a track meet in College Station. The kids always ask to go out for dinner after meets. David usually refuses, but this time he had relented. Had they come straight back to West, they more than likely would have been at the high school, a third of a mile from the fertilizer plant. Instead, David and the track team were 40 miles away when they heard what had happened back home.

Kim’s mom, Cathy, was sitting in a chair on her front porch when the fertilizer plant exploded. The blast blew her out of her chair and onto the porch, flat on her back. When Cathy opened her eyes, she saw debris everywhere, burning pieces of metal falling from the sky. She looked down at her chest. Lying on top of her—unbroken and seemingly untouched—was a three-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“So she, of course, said that was the first thing they got when they went back,” Kim says.

For no good reason, Jeff Holloman took me under his wing on a school band trip to Disney World. We both played the tuba. He was two years older than I, popular and funny. I was too shy to be either. Jeff was that kind of guy. He still is. He bought a redbrick house on Davis Street in 2006, but he has lived in West most of his life. He was the first baby born at the now closed West Texas Hospital.

Jeff lives across a street and an alley from the Woodards, about 2,000 feet from the fertilizer plant. He had just pulled into his driveway when he noticed the smoke. He backed out and—“I guess being the good redneck I am,” he says—headed in the direction of the fire. He made his way to West City Park, between the fertilizer plant and the small apartment building. But being so close to the fire made him uncomfortable, so Jeff drove back around the corner, stopping to visit with neighbors before returning home.

When the fertilizer plant exploded, his wife, Becky, was in the front yard, talking to their neighbors across the street. One of his triplet daughters, Ally, was inside on the couch, watching TV. Her sisters, Abby and Audrey, and younger brother Brett were with their grandmother, Carolyn, coming home from CCE class. Ally was home because she had a stomach bug. Her siblings and grandmother would have been home, too, but Carolyn wanted to ask the CCE director about buying Bibles for the class she taught. It delayed them 10 or 15 minutes—just long enough.

Jeff was in his driveway, behind his truck. He heard a sporadic popping. He thought the house next to the plant was on fire, too, that the sound was bullets catching fire. Or maybe firecrackers.

Less than a minute later, he saw a bright flash and heard a deep boom. “I thought I was imagining this, but others saw it, too: for a split second, I could see wavy, ripple-y air,” he says. “It was the shockwave. I could see it hover. I could see it come right above the treeline.” Then he was blown onto his back on the driveway. Out front, Becky was thrown into the grass. And inside, Abby was buried under collapsed drywall. A ceiling fan fell on her, too.

Jeff doesn’t know how long he was on the ground. When he was able finally to go back to the house days later, he saw what could have been. On the driveway, maybe a foot from where he had been standing, there was chalky residue from where a piece of concrete had landed, before smashing against the back of his house. In his mother Carolyn’s backyard there was a 16-foot length of auger pipe, a foot in diameter, thrust into the back wall, near the roofline. Judging from its path—where it clipped a tree, smashed through a fence, and landed hard enough to gouge a foot-deep gash in Carolyn’s lawn before cartwheeling into her house—it, too, had been headed straight for him.

Michele Scott and her daughter weren’t able to return to their house for 10 days.

When he came to his senses and got up, it was pitch black inside and out. The electricity had been knocked out, and the sky was thick with dust, smoke, and ash. An eerie quiet was punctured by screaming: Becky, because Abby was inside; and Abby, because her parents weren’t. The back door was closest to her, but the carport had caved in. They ran to the front and Becky followed Abby’s voice. She pulled her daughter from under the pile of insulation and drywall, and Abby walked out barefoot over a carpet of broken glass. “And never cut herself,” Jeff says, shaking his head.

They huddled together under a tree in their front yard until they noticed debris was still falling, and some of it was on fire. They moved to the front porch to shield themselves. They could barely see across the street and realized they were having trouble breathing. Then Becky looked at her husband with a tortured look on her face.

“Some debris hit me,” Jeff says. “After she said something, I could feel a warm sensation on the back of my head. I kind of dragged my hand like this, and it was solid blood.”

They ran to his truck. Because of ongoing road construction, it was quicker to head northbound on I-35, so they went that way, as fast they could, for Hill Regional Hospital, in Hillsboro. “I always keep a rag in my console, because my kids are always spilling stuff in my truck,” Jeff says. “I’m not sure how it turns out, but I’ve got that rag on my head and I’m the one driving.” He laughs. “I probably shouldn’t have been.”

Jeff and his family were the first to arrive at the Hillsboro hospital, about 20 miles away. Jeff was frantic. He was trying to tell them about what had happened, that there were many more injured. “I don’t think they understood what I was trying to tell them,” he says. “Becky said that I was getting mad at them and yelling at them.” They finally took him to a room.

By the time a nurse came to check on him, someone else from West had arrived at the hospital. Steve Matus lives just around the corner from Jeff. Minutes before the explosion, Jeff had stopped to talk about the fire with Steve, who was standing in his front yard. They’d joked about the possibility of the plant exploding.

Now, Steve was in a wheelchair, his eyes swollen shut, and he had cuts all over. Jeff sat with Steve, trying to comfort him, waiting for someone to come tend to him.

He asked one passing nurse to come see about Steve, then another. Frustrated and scared, and still bleeding himself, Jeff walked down to the main nurses’ station. He saw an older man in a white coat. That was good enough.

“I don’t know if he’s in charge. But”—he laughs at himself again—“not the smartest thing to do, but I grab his arm and I physically drag him to that room. He’s telling me to let go, and I won’t. Finally he starts walking willingly with me. I show him Steve, and he’s got a startled look on his face, like ‘Oh, my God.’ Steve is bleeding so much that blood is pooling on the floor.

“Finally they get a team working on him,” he says. He pauses. “What I didn’t know—the people they did have there were tending to his wife and grandson. I didn’t know that. That’s why no one was coming in there.”

After Jeff had left Steve on his lawn, Steve had gone inside with his wife, Deirdre, and their 6-year-old grandson, Brayden. They watched the fire through their bay window. When the plant exploded, their faces were pelted with shards of glass from the window.

“This is Not West”: West Elementary School principal Michele Scott and her daughter, Lauren, 9 were across town at her parents’ house on April 17.

Because of his past as a firefighter-paramedic, Brian was able to access the fertilizer plant the morning after the explosion. He went to find his brother Buck’s body.

“A 2D picture does not do it justice,” he says. “You’re standing in a pile of shit. This plant has been here since we’ve been here, and it’s gone. I mean, the energy release—I’ve been to hurricanes, tornados, floods, you know, with the fire department. We sent a team to Katrina and down south to Houston. I’ve seen all that. That’s over a period of time. This shit happened within a matter of three seconds. By the time from when it exploded and it landed back to earth, it was probably three seconds, max. It did all this to this town.”

He shows me a photo on his phone of a chunk of metal he found a quarter-mile away. It’s thick and rusted all the way through. “That’s from pyrolysis,” he says. “That’s a huge release of energy at one time, why it rusted already.”

Brian still doesn’t know why Buck was near the plant. He has heard so many different stories about where he was, what he was doing. Most likely, Buck was moving horses in a pasture close to the plant. Brian doesn’t care what started the fire. He just wants to know what exactly happened to his brother. To get some form of closure, he begged Larry Payne at Aderhold Funeral Home to see his brother’s body.

“I was like, ‘Look, without Arcy’ ”—Buck’s wife—“ ‘or anybody else knowing, look, just let me see the body. That’s all I want to do. I know he’s dead. I know it’s horrible, it’s grotesque. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people burned up. I’ve run calls. I’ve seen this shit. It’s my brother. I need to see this.’ I asked him 20 times.” Payne couldn’t let him do that. There was paperwork, and Arcy would have to get involved. “And I didn’t want her looking. She didn’t need that last image, but I did, and still do.”

Brian started a new job—doing outside sales for Vermeer, a heavy equipment company—at the beginning of May. Partly because it was a good job, and partly because his previous job—doing the same thing for Sykora Family Ford in West—forced him to confront too much sympathy.

“I didn’t feel like going into those businesses and reliving every single thing over again.” He hits his chair for emphasis on the last five words. “ ‘Oh, poor thing.’ I’m not a pity-party guy. I don’t do that crap. People will come up to me”—he tilts his head—“ ‘Sorry.’ And I appreciate all the gestures and all that stuff. But, okay—you grew up Catholic, right? Okay. They say the biggest sacrifice a person can make is giving his life for his friends, right? And it also says that people who are doing a valiant, unselfish act and die, go straight to heaven. You know? Our life is not that long here on earth. We’re gonna see him. He’s already there. I mean, think about it: when you die, you wanna go straight there? That’d be the way I’d wanna go.”

Brian hasn’t been contacted directly by any lawyers, and he’s not looking. And since the explosion, Buck’s wife, Arcy, has kept her gate closed and doesn’t answer calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize.

“Suing somebody’s not gonna bring ’em back,” Brian says. “It’s done.”

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