West: A town tries to heal

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

WEST, Texas - Six months after a massive explosion devastated portions of the central Texas town of West, Local 2 Investigates has found residents frustrated with a painfully slow rebuilding process.

"That night was chaos," recalled West paramedic Kevin Smith.

Smith was at home on April 17 installing a smoke detector when a fire at the West Fertilizer plant detonated nearly 3 dozen tons of ammonium nitrate. Smith said he felt the heat and saw a "bright, white flash" that he thought was lightning.

"I thought, 'wow, that was close,'" said Smith. "Then I realized I was flying through the air and I was like, 'that's not lightning.'"

Smith managed to crawl out of the rubble of his home to find the neighborhood shattered and residents scrambling to help one another.

"There was a lot of people that didn't care about the smoke and the toxic fumes," said Smith. "They were going to help grandma or just going to help people."

Smith would later learn 10 of his fellow first responders were killed during an explosion that left a 93 foot wide and 10 foot deep crater. In all, 15 people were killed by an explosion that also injured hundreds and caused an estimated $200 million in damages.

"Does the town feel broken or stronger, " asked Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

"Feels stronger," said Smith. "You build through weakness, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

That sense of determination can be seen rising above the piles of debris, smashed cars and bent signs that still dot the town. However, Smith and other residents said they are weary of the time it is taking to rebuild their lives. Smith said his home won't be rebuilt until February. Until his home is complete Smith and his wife are living in near-by Waco.

"People are ready to get back, frustration is getting up," said Smith.

West Mayor Tommy Muska said there is roughly $30 million dollars in unmet individual needs. These needs come from the many West residents who are uninsured. Muska said the city is also still negotiating with the federal government over how much money the town will receive to help repair the more than $2 million dollars-worth of damage done to streets, parks and water. A process slowed by the government shutdown and a lag in FEMA giving the town a formal disaster declaration.

More than $3 million in donated funds have been set aside to help uninsured residents. Payments from those donations are only now starting to be disbursed.

"It takes so much longer than any of us realized it would," said John Crowder, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church.

Crowder, who also lost his home to the explosion, is on the board of the Long Term Recovery Center which is in charge of distributing the donated funds. Crowder said legal red tape and bureaucracy slowed the process of releasing donated funds to residents.

"Folks are hurting on a number of levels, there's a tremendous amount of pain," said Crowder.

However, Crowder believes the town is on the road to recovery. Crowder sites the temporary buildings constructed for high school students and the newly built football stadium that replaced the one destroyed by the explosion. Crowder said it was an important step for students to go to school "at home" and for the town to again gather during football games.

"I think we've gone about as low as we can and now it's time for us to start coming back up," said Crowder.

Muska said as it stands now 30 homes are being rebuilt and the city has approved 165 building permits to cover everything from repairs to new home construction.

"You can either worry yourself to death about it or you can go one with your life, I've chosen to go on with my life," said Dr. George Smith.

Dr. Smith said while some residents will not return to West, he is determined to repair the damage done to the home he's lived in with his family since 1977. Smith's medical practice was also destroyed. While waiting for his practice to be rebuilt, Smith is seeing patients at an old bridal boutique he converted into a clinic.

"I'm very excited to get back," said Smith.

Smith's excitement is muddled only by the loss of life and the neighborhood around him.

"You look down and it's all empty lots, it's very sad," said Smith.

Smith is also West EMS's medical director.

"West EMS is a family," said Smith. "We used to meet for coffee and play cards at the station and we can't do that anymore."

Smith was in his house when he heard a call come over his radio that a fire had broken out at the fertilizer plant. Smith said when he saw the smoke his first thought was for the elderly patients living in the nursing home across the street from his home.

"When I pulled out I saw how big the fire was and I said, 'ok, I need to evacuate the nursing home,'" said Smith.

Long before the explosion, Smith said he realized the need for the nursing home to have a shelter-in-place and evacuation plan in case of a fire at the plant.

"Three weeks before this, the nursing home had a fire drill, the scenario for the fire drill was a fire at the fertilizer plant," said Smith.

Smith said he and several others worked for twenty minutes to get all the residents away from the side of the building facing the plant. Smith was still working on moving residents when the explosion happened. The roof collapsed on top of him.

"I feel very blessed to have gotten out alive," said Smith.

Only one patient from the home died the night of the explosion. The facility was destroyed, but will be rebuilt, according to Smith and Muska.

Hand painted, wooden stars with words like "hope," "love" and "overcome this battle" are found posted in many neighborhoods where construction is underway. All gentle reminders that this town is healing.

"God saved us for a reason, now we got to live up to why we were saved," said Kevin Smith.

Federal investigators still have not determined what caused the fire that triggered the explosion at the plant. The investigation is continuing.

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