The Line of Fire

As noncareer firefighters, the thirty members of the West Volunteer Fire Department expected to have their work schedules upended,their dinners interrupted, and maybe for a little smoke to get in their eyes. What they didn’t expect was to face the greatest disaster their town had ever seen—and to lose some of their own.

September 2013By Comments

EPA/Brandon Wade/Corbis

Although the city of West sits just off Interstate 35, on a stretch twenty miles north of Waco that is saturated with harried drivers, the town itself is tranquil. A couple of blocks from the highway, past the public elementary school and the 1912 yellow-brick city hall, a set of raised railroad tracks offers a view of West’s small, historic downtown, where on late afternoons the city’s relaxed rhythm is apparent. At Sam’s Barber Shop, Sam Pinter is usually sweeping the hair off the floor and tidying the combs and clippers. Around the corner, the night-shift bakers at the Village Bakery are starting to make kolaches in the cavernous back room, while locals begin to trickle in at the Czech-American Restaurant (“Home of the original Czech fries”) and Nors Sausage and Burger House, where they know to order the spicy link with a side of sauerkraut.

At the Old Corner Drug Store, where residents of West have had their prescriptions filled since the late 1800’s, closing time means finishing up a few last orders. This is what pharmacist Kirk Wines was doing on Wednesday, April 17, before heading out into the balmy spring evening. A robust 59-year-old with short white hair, he had served the town’s 2,800 people as a pharmacist for thirty years, and now, at 5:30, just like every other evening, he set the alarm, locked the doors, and walked out  to the back alley, where he’d parked his silver Ford truck. Turning on a sports radio station, he pulled onto a wide road and headed east to a well site where the local water co-op board, of which he was a member, had scheduled a brief meeting. As he drove, Wines passed homes with tidy lawns and porches, which eventually dropped away to reveal lush farmland.

After the meeting, Wines returned home to the one-story brick house he shared with his wife, just north of downtown. A little before 7:30, their son, Brad, stopped by to help his father fiddle with an old lawn tractor. The two were in Wines’s workshop when Wines heard his fire department pager go off. As a member of West’s all-volunteer force, he carried the battery-operated device at all times, and he was used to hearing the telltale beeps at inopportune moments. In the years since he’d joined, around 2000, he’d had to respond to emergency calls more than once a week, sometimes leaving the pharmacy in the middle of the day to put out a brush fire or spray down a car that had burst into flames. 

Wines leaned in to listen to the pager’s message, but it was so garbled he couldn’t understand it, and he kept tinkering with the tractor, waiting for some follow-up chatter. Within minutes, he heard clearly: a few of West’s volunteer firefighters had parked a fire truck at the public high school, not far from Wines’s house. Wines stepped outside and saw smoke rising in the distance. “I’ve got to go,” he told his son, and grabbed his keys.

As he drove to the firehouse to pick up his bunker gear, the source of the smoke became unmistakable: the West Fertilizer Company plant, on the north side of town, was ablaze, the fire’s enormous yellow plumes rising high above the two-story main building and its surrounding cluster of tanks and sheds. Wines accelerated, blinking his truck lights as a sign of emergency. He knew which guys were probably already on the scene: Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary, who at 29 was one of the youngest on the force; 50-year-old Douglas Snokhous and his 48-year-old brother, Robert, second-generation volunteers who also worked together at Central Texas Iron Works, in Waco; 32-year-old C. J. Gillaspie, the public works director; and 41-year-old Morris Bridges, a fire sprinkler technician and a relatively new member of the team. These men were most often the first to respond, but there were 29 men and 1 woman on the roster, and all of them would be en route shortly, including Tommy Muska, the 55-year-old mayor, who also ran a full-time insurance company; Stevie Vanek, the 55-year-old mayor pro tem, who owned a glass business; and George Nors Sr., the 67-year-old fire chief, who’d preceded Gillaspie as public works director before he retired. Like Wines, they all would be leaving their families and homes and rushing in. 

At 7:45 Wines pulled up to the fire station, a white building with red trim and walls of corrugated metal. He saw that the five garage doors were wide-open and the trucks were already gone. Wines drove right into the bay, passing under the sign that read “West Volunteer Fire Dept. Hose Co. No. 1.” An homage to the department’s 1890’s equipment, the sign featured an illustration of a horse pulling a red fire wagon. Wines yanked his gear out of a wood storage case in the back of the garage, pulled on his thick pants, snapped the suspenders up, heaved the mustard-colored jacket over his clothes, and grabbed his yellow helmet. Then he hurried back to his truck and steered toward the fire. He got as close as he could, but a safety roadblock in the street forced him to park several hundred feet away, so he tugged on his helmet, lurched out of the truck, and started running.

Wines knew, as all the firemen knew, that stored inside the plant were huge bins of ammonium nitrate, a granular fertilizer that was becoming less and less stable as the fire’s temperature rose. There were also tanks of anhydrous ammonia, which could easily leak or burst and spew the toxic gas all over the town. These tanks were the firefighters’ immediate concern; after all, anhydrous ammonia had been the primary reason for fire department runs to the plant in the past. The threat was especially serious given the plant’s location: though the 51-year-old main building had once been surrounded by large fields, over the years the city of West had grown up around it. Now the public high school was just two hundred yards away. The intermediate school was also nearby, as was the West Rest Haven nursing home, the West Assisted Living Facility, an emergency medical service station, and a 22-unit housing complex called the West Terrace Apartments. And just across the railroad tracks, also in the shadow of the plant, lay an entire neighborhood, whose residents were now coming out of their homes to take a look at the growing blaze. 

Sprinting toward the flames, Wines could see how treacherous the fire looked.  Extinguishing it might take all night and could require the help of a few neighboring departments, but he figured he and his fellow firefighters would get it done. Nearby, Sharon Hlavenka and her daughters Raven and Hannah stepped out in front of their house, watching the fire twist like a yellow-and-black tornado above the two blocks of houses in their view. On the bottom floor of the West Terrace Apartments, college student Erica Smith heard the fire truck sirens as she sat at her dining table, studying for a final exam while her six-year-old hunted around the apartment for toys. A few blocks away, Jean Maler had just gotten home from supper at the Czech-American Restaurant, and she wandered out to her backyard to see the fire’s sparks popping out of the gray smoke. Two of her sons, David and Kevin, were second-generation West volunteer firemen, and she knew they were likely on their way to the plant if they weren’t already there. They’d spray down the building and put out the flames, the way they always did. 

There are 1,501 volunteer fire departments in Texas, which means that 78 percent of the state’s firefighting forces are made up of men and women who are willing to drop whatever they’re doing and risk their lives for no compensation. For these volunteers—shopkeepers, salespeople, farmhands, mechanics—firefighting isn’t so much a passion as an obligation, one that interrupts their meetings, deals, projects, and conversations, adding a bit of chaos to their routines. Broadly speaking, anyone who lives in a town with a population smaller than 15,000, where municipal coffers are often too limited to fund a professional force, understands this. There are no shifts at the firehouse. There’s no one champing at the bit, no one waiting for that call to come in so the guys can jump in the truck and get to work. Yet the reward for volunteer firefighters, as anyone in the West department could tell you, is the simple satisfaction of protecting their community. No one else is going to put out the grass fire by the side of the road or hose down a neighbor’s house. So they do it. 

In West, a prospective volunteer must wait for an opening in the department before he can apply. Even then, he is not automatically enlisted. Members vote on whether an applicant fits the force’s needs (specific qualifications such as proximity to the fire station matter greatly), and if he is selected, the new recruit must then undergo training: a week of fire school at Texas A&M, perhaps, or regional instruction on the use of air packs, trucks, and hoses. If he wants to get certified, as almost half the West firefighters are, he’ll continue to take classes. He must also attend the department’s monthly business meetings and drills, which consist of reviewing the plans of attack at area schools, local businesses, or the town’s hotel. Only after a new firefighter  shows a firm grasp of the process may he assist in a real emergency. 

The West Volunteer Fire Department answers about one hundred calls a year, and except for the department’s annual barbecue cook-off, designed to raise a few thousand dollars for classes and equipment, the firefighters go about this work with little fanfare. Theirs is a quiet commitment: at the time of the blaze at the fertilizer plant, West’s firemen had served an average of 10 years each; the two most veteran members, George Nors Sr. and 51-year-old funeral director Robby Payne, had both served for almost 30 years. The members of the force had all grown to rely on one another, especially when they were faced with unpredictable situations. After Robert Snokhous had had to pull a teenager he knew from a fatal car wreck, for instance, he’d turned to Payne for guidance in the grief-stricken days that followed. “Just how am I supposed to continue to do this?” he’d asked.

They were connected in other ways too. Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary, talked every day with Tommy Muska, the mayor, as well as Stevie Vanek, the mayor pro tem, who happened to be an old classmate of Muska’s. Other firefighters were related by marriage or by blood—the Snokhous brothers were cousins with the one female firefighter, Judy Knapek, and George Nors Jr. served alongside his father—while still others had grown up together or now attended the same church or lived within spitting distance of one another. Payne, for one, had married David Maler’s cousin and regularly played golf with Kirk Wines and Muska, who was also his neighbor. And back in 2005, when Muska’s teenage son, Nick, was killed in a horrible automobile accident, it was Payne who’d handled the funeral.

Robby Payne in the chapel at the Aderhold Funeral Home. Portrait by Sarah Wilson. 

Such tangled bonds are a fact of small-town life anywhere, and in West, where neighbors have known one another for so many generations that they can tell you which families tend to serve in the fire department, these connections were a special point of pride. Here, people saw one another at the drug store, at weekend picnics, at baseball games, and, more likely than not, at mass at St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, which boasted 1,500 parishioners. And, of course, there was Westfest, the town’s annual celebration of all things Czech, when residents reveled in their shared heritage with an abundance of sausage and kolaches and where local girls donned traditional dresses made by hand at Maggie’s Fabric Patch. 

This familiarity was, in fact, one reason people stayed in West and why young people who’d moved away returned. These prodigals, who might bring out-of-town spouses with them (known as Czech-mates), would likely have been homesick for the fluent Czech spoken among their elders and the casual phrases uttered around town (pivos for “beers,” Jak se máš? for “How are you?”). Now they’d teach their children which residents in town went by the nicknames Pee-Wee and Poopsie, and they’d explain that Jimma Holecek, the slowest driver in town, was an animal lover whose chickens and cows were the most cared-after creatures around. (“If I’m reincarnated as an animal,” his wife was known to say, “I want to belong to Jimma.”) 

More importantly, they’d talk about dedication—the kind of dedication locals had shown twenty years ago when word spread that Vanek’s nephew needed a liver transplant and the town hosted an auction, a fried-chicken dinner, and bake sales to raise $90,000 for his family. The kind of dedication that meant people attended every baptism and wedding, and every funeral too, marveling at the way the cemetery grass was always neatly mowed, the graves cared for in such a way that even the oldest markers were decorated with flags and flowers. (Local retiree Robert Zahirniak swears that the graves are so well tended that a couple who was visiting West decided to relocate there upon seeing some of the grounds. “You can really judge a town by its cemeteries,” he explained.)

Volunteering to fight fires on behalf of the community was a natural extension of this same dedication. Risky though the job was, nobody was too preoccupied with how dangerous it could truly be. No firefighter had died on a call in West since Payne’s wife was a little girl and her dad had had a heart attack while fighting a fire. That was many years ago. The last time West had witnessed any sort of threatening disaster, in fact, was in 1896, at an incident later named the Crash at Crush. In a publicity stunt organized by general passenger agent W. G. Crush and attended by a crowd of 30,000 to 50,000, two railroad engines were sent roaring toward each other. Just before the trains met, the engineers jumped to safety, but the collision was followed by something no one had anticipated: both boilers exploded. Three bystanders were killed; others were burned and injured by flying debris.

Mimi Montgomery Irwin, the owner of the Village Bakery, kept a photo of the event on the wall and would often tell the story to customers. “That’s the only thing that has happened here in one hundred and sixty years,” she’d say.

Robby Payne had silenced his fire department pager before going on a golfing trip with Kirk Wines and Tommy Muska in early April, then forgotten about it after he returned to West. But the night of the fire, word that the plant was ablaze spread quickly through town, and around 7:30, the funeral director and longtime volunteer received a call with the news from his stepfather-in-law. “I’m on my way,” Payne said.

Since he kept his bunker gear at his house, Payne grabbed it and drove straight to the scene, watching the smoke balloon above the buildings like puffy gray pillows. Spotting a group of firefighters, he parked and walked up to a big red pumper truck the department had named Nick, after Muska’s son. “Is Cody here?” Payne asked, referring to their fellow volunteer Cody Dragoo, who was a plant foreman. Yes, he had already driven in, came the reply. Dragoo would be helpful, Payne thought. He’d be able to tell them where the ammonium nitrate was stored and how worried they should be about a possible anhydrous ammonia leak. 

The team was forming quickly: C. J. Gillaspie and a relatively new fireman named Eddie Hykel in Nick the pumper. Morris Bridges and Joey Pustejovsky in another pumper truck. The Snokhous brothers in the grass-fire truck. George Nors Sr., solo, in the tanker. An ambulance also arrived, as did the firefighters who’d driven straight to the scene in their own vehicles: Dragoo, nursing home maintenance man Emanuel Mitchell, and precinct constable David Maler. Other volunteers from the force—Hank Heemels, Marty Marak, and Judy Knapek—showed up too, positioning themselves a bit farther back from the blaze. 

Additional help began to arrive. Kenneth “Luckey” Harris, a seasoned Dallas fire captain who lived near West, showed up after he saw the fire from a friend’s house; though he wasn’t a volunteer in the West department, he figured he could offer his expertise. Jimmy Matus, who lived near the plant and whose company had built the fire trucks, came to assist, as did his cousin Kenneth. William “Buck” Uptmor, who owned a pipe and fencing business, and his employee Chilo Rodriguez had been moving some horses out of a nearby field and headed over to offer the crew a hand. And from the EMS building, where a class had been wrapping up a basic emergency medical technician course, students Perry Calvin, Jerry Chapman, Cyrus Reed, and Kevin Sanders—all firefighters from the outlying areas—also made their way toward the blaze. Fearing a leak of the anhydrous ammonia, the rest of their EMT classmates began an evacuation of the neighborhood. 

The first firefighters on the scene had arrived only four minutes after the initial call came in, at 7:28. Nine minutes later they were calling the surrounding departments for backup. Their initial worry was access to water. The guys on the southeast side hooked a hose up to the closest hydrant, two hundred yards away, near the high school football field, but as they were unreeling it toward the fire, they realized it was too short. Gillaspie was planning to pull the hose off another truck just around the time that Payne and some of the other guys, concerned about the increasing size of the fire, determined that they were going to have to retreat and wait for reinforcements. 

Payne zipped up his coat and began to walk over to the north side of the fire, intending to relay the team’s decision to any firemen in that area. He was almost there at 7:51, when his memory of the incident ends.

The explosion registered 2.1 on the Richter scale. Occurring in two blasts, a millisecond apart, it provided the detonating power of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT. The fire had ignited the ammonium nitrate. As chunks of concrete, burning wood, and shredded panels of metal flew a half mile in every direction, like mutated bullets, a tumultuous shock punched through every house in the area. A 600-pound mass of concrete soared 450 yards and crashed through the roof of the West Rest Haven nursing home. Twisted, ripped sheets of metal landed on lawns, streets, and fields. Burning fragments caught houses on fire. All that was left of the plant was a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

The 93-foot-by-10-foot crater left by the explosion at the fertilizer plant. Photograph by Brian Ficke.

Just about everybody within 45 miles felt the blast. Ten-year-old Hannah Hlavenka, who had been standing on her porch, saw her front yard ripple like a small wave as her sister and mother, who had been near the street, were tossed back about fifteen feet. As Erica Smith felt the boom, she dove over her son to protect him from the falling ceiling. Jean Maler wondered if she was experiencing an earthquake. Bryan Anderson, a restaurant owner who was driving his nine-year-old son home from catechism class, was right in front of the West Terrace Apartments when the country music station they were listening to went silent, replaced by a gentle swishing sound just before all the glass from his windshield and side windows was sucked in toward him and his son, as if the two were magnetic pincushions.

West’s EMS director, George Smith, who, like his students, had been attempting to evacuate the area, ran to the EMS helicopter. His face streaked with blood, he used the satellite radio to request assistance from all fire trucks, ambulances, urban search-and-rescue teams, police, and Department of Public Safety troopers within a hundred-mile radius. Other responders also radioed in. “Y’all have anybody available, I am requesting you. They have firefighters down,” said a female dispatcher. “Firefighters down. Again, there has been an explosion. There are firefighters down.”

Wines had been about two hundred yards from the plant when it blew. Though an ambulance’s doors had caved in not far from him, he himself was unaffected, as if protected by a fortuitous, if mystifying, cocoon of air. The blast didn’t even knock him down. Wines stood for a second as the fireball morphed into a giant mushroom cloud above him. Then, running toward the smoke, he saw injured firemen, like ghosts in a fog. The first was  Mitchell, who was leaning against a damaged vehicle, shrapnel in his back. Next was Nors Sr., walking in a daze, covered in dirt and bleeding from the ears. “Are you all right?” Wines asked, but Nors motioned that he couldn’t hear anything. A minute later, Wines came across David Maler, whose T-shirt had been ripped off by the force, leaving only the collar around his neck. His pants looked as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut them up the seams.

Payne was lying unconscious near a large white plastic tank, which had been dented in by his body, when Wines’s wife and son, who’d sped to the scene with many of their neighbors, found him. He had literally been blown out of his boots, and his coat, still zipped up, looked as if it had been torn apart by a shotgun blast. As the two helped Payne up, he was bleeding from both ears, his teeth were chipped, and his chest and arm were aching. He was talking, though he doesn’t remember that now, as an ambulance picked him up and took him to an area hospital. Other firefighters at the scene had suffered similar injuries: retina damage, busted eardrums, broken bones, lacerations—and those were just the most obvious problems.

As rescue teams and more locals arrived, Wines got to work. Miraculously, Maler was well enough to help him, and the two men, plus a few others, worked to lift injured bystanders onto backboards and carry them to the nearest road. Then, looking for more backboards, Wines headed to the football field, where he’d heard a triage unit had been set up. By this time, however, word was spreading that the unstable chemicals at the plant might cause another explosion. “We’re not letting anybody else back there,” someone told Wines when he got to the field, referring to the area around the plant. “Y’all need to get out.”

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a great many of West’s residents rushed not away from the fertilizer plant but toward it. One of those was Rose Ann Morris, West Rest Haven’s administrator. As the city’s warning sirens blared their high-pitched notes, she hopped into the car with her husband, her son, and his fiancée and swerved around the twisted metal that lay strewn across the asphalt, determined to get to the nursing home and her elderly charges. The sun was setting, and they could see all the wrecked homes—blasted windows, bricks tumbling off the sides, roofs crushed. Most of the power had gone out, and soon only the headlights from vehicles and the occasional house fire would illuminate the area. 

When Morris and her family finally got to the nursing home, she stood and gaped at the red-brick building for a moment. The gray-shingled roof had collapsed like wet paper, and the windows had shattered. Morris had known most of the 130 residents her whole life; they’d been customers at her parents’ grocery store when she was growing up, and they’d visited with her at church picnics. “Are they all dead?” she wondered now. Entering through a blown-out double window in the dining room, she began to wade through giant broken slabs of drywall and the piles of insulation that had fallen like gray stuffing on the tables, chairs, and floors.  Her daughter, Christina, arrived at the home a few minutes later and navigated her way to a room where a resident named Johnnie Sinkule was sitting on a caved-in hospital bed. “Can you make that noise stop?” he asked, pointing to the bed alarm. She took the alarm and chucked it at the wall. The alarm fell silent. “I guess that’ll work too,” he said. 

Just behind the nursing home, in the West Assisted Living Facility, part-time attendant Cindy Webre was pulling herself off the floor. She didn’t remember being thrown. All the lights in the building had gone out, save for a blinking red alarm in the hallway that emitted a shrill, intermittent blast, and she could barely see through the smoke. Her colleague had been knocked unconscious, and Webre realized that all eleven residents were depending on her to get out. She didn’t think she had the energy to help. She stood for a moment, considering her next move. Then she heard the voice of her father, who’d died just a year earlier. “You’re okay,” he told her. “Now get them out one at a time.” Webre began walking from room to room, searching for the residents, who were covered in glass and drywall.

After a while, two men outside ran up to an empty window frame near her and shouted, “Are you okay?” Webre thought this was a crazy question. “Nobody’s okay,” she shouted over the alarm. Then she felt a wave of hope. Help was coming. Within thirty minutes, other West citizens—teenagers, groups of friends, couples—had swarmed the area, rushing in through the windows to pull residents out of both the nursing home and the assisted living facility, wrapping the elderly with sheets and blankets to stop their bleeding and protect them from the broken glass. They loaded the injured into trucks, and when there were no trucks, they pushed the victims in wheelchairs. 

They headed for the football field, to the triage operation. There, under the stadium lights, away from the fire and smoke, nurses and doctors assessed head injuries, broken bones, major cuts, eyes lacerated by flying glass, and, in one case, a woman’s half-blown-off ankle. Ambulance after ambulance rolled in to take the injured away to the closest hospitals in neighboring towns. 

Brian Uptmor, a former professional firefighter, also found his way to the football field. He’d been en route to the fire when the plant had exploded. During his efforts to help the victims, he’d spotted Chilo Rodriguez, his brother Buck’s employee, with a gash across his entire back, and he had searched for an empty ambulance to put Rodriguez in. “Chilo, you gotta go, buddy,” Uptmor told him. But Rodriguez was in a daze. “Tell Buck he needs to move my truck,” he replied. Uptmor figured Rodriguez was in shock. His words made no sense: not only was the truck trivial under the circumstances, but Buck wouldn’t have been called to help with the fire—he wasn’t on the volunteer roster. Nonetheless, Uptmor had a horrible feeling. He called his brother’s cellphone as he headed to the field, wondering why he didn’t pick up. Then, like Wines, Uptmor heard the rumor of another possible explosion. Workers began to urge everyone to go to the south part of town. “Head for the community center,” people were saying. 

Around 9:30, after searching for stranded tenants in the West Terrace Apartments, Wines caught a ride to the fire station, where most of the volunteers had gathered. Exhausted, stunned, covered in sweat and dirt, they pulled off their gear, convening in the garage. Some guys sank into chairs or leaned against the walls; others chugged bottles of water from the refrigerator. Desperately, they compared stories to map out everyone’s whereabouts: who had been seen walking around, who had been swept up by an ambulance. They knew whose vehicles were parked out near the garage entrance, still unclaimed: Joey Pustejovsky’s red pickup, Douglas Snokhous’s older gray-and-black pickup, Robert Snokhous’s and Morris Bridges’s taupe sedans. They also knew whose families were calling, asking, “Have you seen—?” or “Do you know where—?” These were the hardest questions to hear, and the men had no answers. They didn’t know. 

An aerial view of the remains of the West Terrace Apartments on April 18, the day after the explosion. AP Photo | Smiley N. Pool.

The names of the casualties didn’t trickle out until two days later, on Friday night. When Kirk Wines visited Robby Payne in the hospital, Payne asked about the other responders. As Wines started to tell him who had died, Payne hung his head and closed his eyes, and Wines didn’t continue. Fifteen people had perished as a result of the fertilizer plant explosion. Joey Pustejovsky, Morris Bridges, Douglas and Robert Snokhous, and Cody Dragoo had died at the scene. So had many who weren’t West volunteer firefighters: Dallas fire captain Luckey Harris; EMS students and area fire department volunteers Perry Calvin, Jerry Chapman, Cyrus Reed, and Kevin Sanders; and civilians Jimmy Matus and Buck Uptmor had all died trying to help. (Matus and Uptmor would later be designated honorary West firemen.) Just beyond the plant site, the explosion had claimed the lives of two of Erica Smith’s neighbors—Judith Monroe, whom Smith knew as Miss Judy, and Mariano Saldivar—as well as a nursing home resident who died shortly afterward, 96-year-old Adolph Lander. Every person in West lost someone he knew. 

It took a couple of days for workers to be certain of the count. With the threat of another explosion, they had to wait to comb the area, and then when they did, they had to make sure they covered every inch. McLennan County sheriff Parnell McNamara, who had seen some horrific scenes in his long career, later said he had difficulty erasing the images from his mind. “Never saw anything like it in my life,” he said. The night after the blast, at around 10:00, an honor guard of firemen, policemen, and state fire marshals formed to salute the dead as their bodies were brought out from the plant’s wreckage one at a time. It took hours. “They’d go down and bring one back and take about fifteen minutes before they brought the next one,” Wines said. “We didn’t know who they were. They wouldn’t identify them to us. But we kind of knew.”

On Friday afternoon, Governor Rick Perry and some other officials held a press conference in West at a cattle auction barn, where Perry answered questions about policy and regulation—broad questions that weren’t foremost in the minds of most residents—before Mayor Muska was given the microphone. Visibly worn from the long hours of stress and no sleep, he answered questions flatly. After a reporter asked him to recount the night, he said his fire department pager had gone off and he’d driven his pickup to the fire. “I noticed there was a big crowd, so I went by the high school and saw that side of the fire. I got out of my car, started walking toward the fire. About a block and a half out, my hat flew off. A split second later—boom,” he recalled. “You don’t want my phrase of what I said.” 

Another reporter asked how it felt to have experienced such an event. “Devastating,” he said. “I’ve been a member of the fire department for twenty-six years. These guys are my friends. One of them was my city secretary. He had access to our Facebook page, which we can’t get into because that was his job. I talked to him every day. And now he’s not here.”

The funerals began the Wednesday after the explosion and continued almost daily for a week and a half. Payne’s business, the Aderhold Funeral Home, organized many of the services while Payne was recovering. The first memorial, honoring Harris, was held at St. Mary’s, chosen for being the biggest church in town. (Harris attended the nondenominational High Point Church, in Waco.) Even so, the sanctuary couldn’t contain the thousand-some people who came to pay him tribute, including the volunteer fire department, whose members took up several pews. Firefighters from Harris’s force in Dallas, dressed in blue uniforms, filled at least a quarter of the church, while the overflow of mourners stood outside, indifferent to the cold front that had blown in. “When the cameras are gone and the news media leave, people will forget,” retired Dallas Fire-Rescue chaplain Denny Burris said in his eulogy. “But not us. Not us.” 

Of the services that followed, most were held in West; a few took place in the surrounding communities, and a joint memorial service for the first responders was held at Baylor University, attended by President Barack Obama. In funeral after funeral, families and survivors shared stories about their lost loved ones. How Dragoo had left little notes for his wife whenever he went out of town—I miss you, I love you—so she would find them when she got home from work. How Douglas Snokhous had taken his step-grandkids for rides in the fire truck, and how his brother, Robert, had loved his wife so much that he married her twice, even though they were never divorced. How Matus had once bought a saddle at a fundraiser despite not owning a horse, and how Bridges, who usually ran straight to a fire, had turned around that day to pick up his son and say, “Daddy loves you. I’ll be right back.” How Uptmor, a cowboy at heart, had trained his daughter’s horses, and how he’d coached his son’s baseball teams and jumped at any chance to help someone out. How Pustejovsky had always had a smile, showing a dimple in his left cheek. “He was the only one that was able to keep me in line and to show me that I needed to be more sympathetic, more loving, more caring,” his mother, Carolyn, said in a memorial service video. “I’m so proud of my son, to be able to go out there, to save people’s lives, and to sacrifice his own,” she continued. “Joey, rest in peace. And take care, sweet son. I love you.”  

“We’re so lucky” became the common refrain in later weeks. Some thirty tons of ammonium nitrate had exploded, but soon afterward it was discovered that an additional twenty to thirty tons had not. One hundred more tons, found in a nearby railcar that had blown off the tracks, were also intact. No toxic gas had leaked from the anhydrous ammonia tanks, as the firefighters had feared. Furthermore, the accident had taken place when classes at the high school and intermediate school were out. “Can you imagine if this had happened during the day?” residents asked one another. 

No one, perhaps, felt luckier than the first responders who had survived. Sitting at each funeral, Wines replayed the events in his mind. “If I had been there right when the dispatch went off . . . ,” he said later, trailing off. “If I had had my bunker gear at home, like I do sometimes . . .” Thinking about the event scared Eddie Hykel; he couldn’t get his two buddies Dragoo and Robert Snokhous out of his mind. Payne, who was one of the firemen closest to the explosion who hadn’t died, also reflected on his fate. “An inch one way or an inch another way and I think my life would have ended,” he said.

Kirk Wines outside the Old Corner Store. Portrait by Sarah Wilson.

Across town, daily conversations turned to God and faith and the reason any of us are here in the first place. Stevie Vanek had been having a beer with McLennan County justice of the peace David Pareya when his pager went off. Vanek said he had to go, but Pareya continued talking. “Just let me finish telling you this,” he kept saying. “And one more thing—” Fifteen minutes later, when Vanek finally got to the fire station, he hopped on the last fire truck headed out. He was near the football field when the plant blew. “If David hadn’t kept me those ten minutes, I’d have been with them, and I’d be dead,” Vanek said. “I firmly believe that when I was born, the day was set when I was going to go. That’s my belief. And it just wasn’t my time. That’s the only thing I can figure.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Mayor Muska told a packed crowd one night after evening mass at St. Mary’s. It was three days after the blast, and everyone wanted to know when they could get back into their homes and find what was salvageable. Muska understood; his own house was only a few blocks from the plant site. But areas on the north side of town were still cordoned off, he explained, as public safety officials assessed which buildings were safe for entry. “I’m not going to lie or paint a rosy picture,” he said. “But as soon as we get there, we’re gonna get there. And we are going to get there together, I’m positive of that. I know that.” He paused. “The one miracle I can tell you about is Jimma Holecek’s chickens survived.” Quiet laughter swept through the weary crowd, and Muska continued. “They’re at the humane society in Waco, Texas. So there is a God.” Grateful, perhaps, for the exhausted mayor’s stamina, one person began to clap. The sound was loud and vigorous, and soon the applause was spreading from pew to pew. 

Like many others, West’s volunteer firemen were jettisoning their work demands to concentrate on the city. Muska, for example, was one of three insurance agents in West, and incoming claims piled up in his office as he spent his days making pressing decisions as mayor. Stevie Vanek put his glass business on hold so he could focus as mayor pro tem on the needs at city hall. George Nors Jr. took time off from his job at a Waco bottling plant to fill in for his father at the station until George Nors Sr. had recovered from his injuries. Since the townspeople couldn’t do without prescriptions, Kirk Wines went back to work at the Old Corner Drug Store, where he used donations that had begun to come in to cover the cost of the medicine for displaced citizens. In a town that prided itself on its strength and resourcefulness, he found that many of his patrons resisted the kindness, trying to pay him anyway. “These people don’t get the blessing of giving if you don’t take it,” he chided them.

George Nors Sr. outside West’s firehouse. Portrait by Sarah Wilson.

In fact, people in West were struggling with outside attention of all sorts. Reporters and TV crews had descended on the town, and residents couldn’t seem to walk two steps without being interviewed. Just as alien, initially, were the generous offers that poured in from relief organizations. The Friday after the blast, a Red Cross official called the emergency-management team in charge of West because no one was showing up at the shelters that the Red Cross had set up for citizens who had lost their homes. “Where are your people?” the official asked. A representative for the emergency team explained that neighbors, family, and friends had taken them all in. “People are just like that here,” Vanek later explained.

Finally, a week after the disaster, the city began opening up the affected neighborhoods. While residents dug through the wreckage, Red Cross volunteers drove around delivering water, soda, food, paper filter masks, and plastic gloves. Insurance adjusters wanted estimates on the items lost, a puzzle to anyone who has ever had to make a claim. How do you put a price on a damaged old photo of a loved one? Or ostrich boots that had been broken in just right? Animal-lover Jimma Holecek, who was a carpenter, was elated to find his wooden rosary among the rubble of his house. Jean Maler was teased by her daughters and friends as they dug through insulation to find and sort her enormous shoe and purse collections. Sharon Hlavenka was able to retrieve her driver’s license, jewelry, phone, and iPad from her house, and her children, like many others who knew their homes would be razed, spray-painted messages on the front brick as a final goodbye. “Na zdraví” (“Cheers”), read one house. “We are West,” read another. The Hlavenka kids sprayed “God is big enough” in large letters on their home, above the shrubs; between a shattered window and the front door, which had been blown off its hinges, they wrote, “For Sale Very Nice.” 

By the second Saturday after the explosion, everyone had cleared out of their homes, leaving huge trash bags on the street, and the bulldozing had begun. Paramedic Kevin Smith was the first to watch his house be demolished. The air still smelled sweet, like burned metal, as he stood at the curb with his arms folded. “They said it would take about a day,” he said. It was hard for him to look at the damaged brick house and not relive the explosion that had shaken him in his second-story bedroom, where he’d been installing a smoke detector. Prior to the explosion, he and his wife had scheduled a Child Protective Services inspection so they could proceed with an adoption request. Now his family plans were on hold, replaced by meetings with architects. 

As Smith watched a yellow excavator claw at his home, his next-door neighbor, Brian Kaska, walked over in an army-green T-shirt and sunglasses. He was an engineer who had just celebrated his baby girl’s first birthday. Kaska’s house had burned to the ground, leaving only a brick chimney that towered above the blackened rubble. He presumed a burning chunk of the plant had hit his home. His family hadn’t been there; they saw their house burning on television the night of the blast. 

Smith and Kaska talked as people drove by snapping photos. Finally, bristling at all the rubberneckers, Kaska’s mood shifted. “On the Monday afterward, I was counting cars; I counted to one hundred and just stopped,” he said. “I see people with video cameras—why?” No sooner had he finished his sentence than another car drove up with passengers taking pictures. Kaska looked at his scorched home, gritted his teeth, and muttered, “Smile for the camera.”


Nobody will ever know for certain what caused the fire at the fertilizer plant. Although the state fire marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives  have winnowed the possible causes down to three—an electrical malfunction in the main building, an electrical malfunction in a golf cart used at the plant, or arson—the case will likely go unsolved. There simply isn’t enough left of the plant to study, and a giant hole offers few specific clues. For a brief time, officials showed interest in 31-year-old Bryce Reed, a West paramedic who was arrested for possessing the components of a pipe bomb. But investigators couldn’t connect him to the explosion, and while Reed awaited trial, most locals relegated “causes” to the same mental file as “regrets,” considering both to be an unfruitful line of thinking that prevented them from moving forward.

Even after a few locals who’d been blinded or burned eventually filed lawsuits—as did some insurance carriers that underwrote multiple damaged properties—the general feeling among the residents of West toward the plant’s owner, 83-year-old Donald Adair, was overwhelmingly supportive. The company’s $1 million in liability insurance wouldn’t go very far, and in retrospect, the safeguards at the plant should have been better, no question. But Adair, who had bought the plant in 2004, was still one of them. “They’re community people,” said Kirk Wines. Adair had been raised just north of town, in Abbott, and his wife, Wanda, was a columnist for the weekly West News, writing about her cows, her children, and the weather. The Adairs’ friends told the Dallas Morning News that when the couple had heard about the fire at the plant, they’d tried to rush to the site but had been stopped by a police barricade. “You’ve got to get those firemen out of there,” Donald had told an officer. No one heard much from him or Wanda after the explosion, but few doubted how deeply they cared.

Meanwhile, talk around town turned to the future. West had incurred $17,775,175 in city infrastructure damages, including the loss of three schools, $800,000 in sewer damage, and $3 million in water pipe damage. Due in part to the loss of money that usually came from selling the city’s water, the town’s tax revenue plummeted. In June the city council decided to file suit against Adair Grain and the company that supplied the plant with ammonium nitrate, CF Industries. Two months later, after initially denying government aid to the city of West, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered funds to help with the rebuilding process. Mayor Muska was relieved. “I don’t want my people moving away to Waco,” he said later. “There are a lot of houses in Central Texas that they can move into right now and say, ‘Have a nice day, West.’ And they won’t come back. So that’s my concern.”

Tommy Muska (left) and Stevie Vanek in front of a new home being built near the blast site. Portrait by Sarah Wilson. 

With so much to oversee, the city council helped establish a long-term recovery center that would apply donated funds to residents’ needs. The only available office space the council could offer was the 1890 Best Theatre building, which had no restrooms or windows, but the center’s interim executive director, West real estate agent Karen Bernsen, wasn’t one to complain. On the first day in the theater, she and a handful of volunteers sat at a long plastic table covered with pens, Styrofoam cups, notepads, and laptops while a group of men began the task of converting the dark, cavernous space into a workplace by pulling a clunky old air conditioner out of the wall. “We’re thinking we’ll be here three to five years,” Bernsen said, looking up from her laptop.

She didn’t waste time. When a worker stopped by and said, “Last chance for email. Last name, first initial?” she looked up from her work for a moment, replied, “Right,” and went back to her computer as the man marched off. Her assistant, Susanne Nemmer, interrupted to ask, “Nine to six, Monday through Friday?”

“Eight-thirty to five, Monday through Friday. I have kids. Oh, and include the website:” 

A man wandered in amid the diligent army, biting his lip, having seen a makeshift sign out front. The needs of the townspeople were mounting as insurance adjusters called to tell them what money they’d be receiving and what they’d need to pay on their own. “How long do you think it’ll be before you’ll be open?” the man asked Bernsen.

“Now,” Bernsen replied. “We’re open now.”

“The way people react tells the whole story about who they are,” said Joe Pustejovsky, six weeks after his son died. Pustejovsky’s home, three hundred yards from the blast, had been destroyed. His wife, Carolyn, and his son’s wife, Kelly, each wore a necklace adorned with a pendant holding an image of Joey. But other than to honor Joey’s memory, the family didn’t want to dwell on the horrifying events. “I never had any questions I wanted to ask about the past,” said Joe. Any thoughts about why the tragedy had happened were eclipsed by his faith in God and his community. “Everything is just really strong here,” he said. “That’s why we’re so resilient. That’s why we bounced back.”

Joey Pustejovsky’s family, including, from left to right, his sister-in-law, Dolores; his mother, Carolyn; his father, Joe; his widow, Kelly; and his brother, Brad. Photograph by Sarah Wilson. 

Three months after the fire, ATF agents spoke with a group of firefighters who were willing to meet and told them that they hadn’t done anything wrong. This was a relief to some. In the days afterward, several of the firefighters caught up with each other one-on-one, and they gathered at the fire station for business meetings, sometimes revisiting the events of the night of April 17. But talking about the blast was still difficult. The questions that remain for many of the volunteers may never be answered. 

Robby Payne remembers talking to someone when he arrived at the scene, and he hopes he can learn someday who it was. “For me, it’s a big question: Is the person I talked to still alive?” he asked. “I don’t know that. I feel certain he isn’t because I was in the very front. I feel certain he was killed. I just don’t know who it was. People say, ‘Maybe your memory will come back.’ That won’t happen.”

That void in his memory may be one of his greatest blessings. Unlike some others, he doesn’t shrink from the sound of sirens or jump when he hears fireworks. (When a group of vacation Bible school kids visited the firemen at the station recently to give them thank-you cards, the children climbed on the truck and hit the siren, a sound that sent a jolt through many of the firefighters.) Still, he doesn’t know if he’s ready to put his bunker gear on again. “That’s something that’s been weighing heavy on me,” he said one day this summer, sitting at his office desk at the funeral home. “Should I retire? Take a leave of absence? Get someone else who can get in there? It’s something I’m wrestling with.” 

There were many points of business to deal with at the fire station in the wake of the disaster. Three trucks lost in the explosion needed replacing. Insurance adjusters and investigating state and federal officials required meetings. And even as the smell of smoke still hung in the air and scraps from the fertilizer plant continued to litter yards and dangle from trees, the firefighters had to make certain they were prepared for the next emergency. When the West Volunteer Fire Department posted five new open positions, thirteen people applied. Nobody was surprised.

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