One year later, West continues to heal, rebuild
By Michele Chan Santos
On that day, Father Boniface Onjefu, the associate pastor at St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish in West, had just finished the 6:30 p.m. Mass. He walked over to the rectory, relaxed after the evening service.
“Then I heard the explosion,” Father Onjefu said. “The house shook. It was like an earthquake. I ran out of the house and saw people all over the street. I looked up and saw thick, dark smoke headed into the sky. I ran toward it because I wanted to help.”
That day was April 17, 2013, when tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the West Fertilizer Company, detonating after a fire erupted at the plant. The blast killed 15 people, injured more than 300 others, and caused millions of dollars in damage. A nursing home and 350 private homes were obliterated.
After he heard the blast, Father Onjefu sprinted toward the disaster area. “There was a lot of commotion and many police cars,” he said. “We helped in the evacuation of residents from the surrounding streets. It was like a war zone.”
The first anniversary of the tragedy took place on Holy Thursday this year. To honor the lives of those who were lost, and in support of everyone who continues to suffer as a result of the explosion, several events were held in West. Bishop Joe Vásquez celebrated a memorial Mass on April 11. A service for the community of St. Mary’s Catholic School was held on April 17, which included praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. On April 17, beginning at 7:30 p.m., a large, city-wide, multi-faith memorial event was held at the West Fair and Rodeo Grounds, a gathering intended to help heal the community of West and all those directly affected by the tragedy.
A time of hope
A year later, Father Onjefu says there are signs of hope –– of an Easter rebirth –– all across West, a small city of 2,800 residents that is known for its Czech heritage and strong Catholic roots.
Where there was once a no man’s land of destruction surrounding the plant, now there are new houses. Some are complete; others are being built. More are finished every day, he said.
“Right now we have about 100 houses standing up and another 200 houses refurbished,” Father Onjefu said. “If you drive through the town now, you can feel a big difference, you can feel hope in the community. After the explosion, it was only rubble and dirt. Now, the new houses are bigger, more beautiful and well-placed than what was there before.”
Gail Bertrand, Director of Disaster for South Central Region, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, has been working with victims of the disaster for the last year.
“West is a small community and it is a very close-knit and loving community,” Bertrand said. “Their ability to accept what has happened and move forward has been a great thing. It’s just a really good feeling.”
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul provided more than 225 “houses in a box” to residents who had lost everything in the blast. Each family received new mattresses, furniture, pots, pans and other household goods, including sheets and towels. The families used these items in their temporary housing and have been able to move them into the rebuilt homes, Bertrand said.
One clear sign of hope was the groundbreaking on April 4 for the new nursing home, which will replace the one destroyed in the explosion. The new West Rest Haven nursing home is being built on North Davis Street across from its former location. The new residence will be almost 50 percent bigger, at 75,000 square feet, and will have larger recreation and rehabilitation facilities. It is scheduled to open in mid-2015.
Father Ed Karasek, pastor of Church of the Assumption, blessed the site at the groundbreaking.
The residents of the former home have been scattered in nursing homes across Waco and Hillsboro since the tragedy.
“Whenever I talk to them, they want to get home, and home is West,” Father Karasek said.
The people in the parish, and the other residents of West, “are rebuilding. They seem like they are moving on with their lives. They are still healing,” he said.
Father Karasek expressed his gratitude to the people of the Diocese of Austin, whose financial help assisted many people affected by the explosion.
“All the second collections from our diocese, it was a wonderful show of community,” he said. “It helped many families.”
The parish building itself sustained some damage, but it has been repaired.
“People have been so good to us,” Father Karasek said. “We received so many donations from around the world, but especially from the Czech Republic.” Churches in the Czech Republic sent donations, “and there were so many people who came from other cities and states all over the country to help us clean up and rebuild.”
At St. Mary’s Catholic School in West, 10 families whose children attend the school lost their homes in the explosion.
Donations to the school allowed all the students to remain at St. Mary’s, said school principal Ericka Sammon.
“We were very fortunate,” she said. “I want to express how truly grateful we are for everyone in the Catholic community who has supported us. We weren’t always able to thank them personally because there was so much going on. It’s been really beautiful to see how God has worked.”
One year later, the families who lost their homes are in different stages of recovery.
“Some of our families were able to rebuild, some families are in the process of rebuilding, and some families are still in a transition phase,” Sammon said. “With all the wonderful donations” the school was able to cover most of the tuition, uniform and lunch expenses of the current school year for the children who lost their houses in the tragedy.
Sammon said some of the families “are still very much struggling to put the pieces together.” For those families, she is hoping more donations can help cover the cost of their children’s tuition and other school expenses for the 2014-2015 school year.
She is grateful for all the cards, posters and banners sent to St. Mary’s School from other Catholic children.
“Our halls were filled, and the kids loved reading them and felt very uplifted that people were praying for them.”
As rebuilding efforts began in West, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul generously provided money for an urban design and planning firm to create a master recovery plan, Bertrand said.
Landscape architects, economic development specialists and other professionals with KAI Texas helped plan recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They are working with the residents of West and with city officials to develop a recovery plan that could become a blueprint for other smaller communities ravaged by disaster.
Although many families are back on their feet and houses continue to be rebuilt, some of the people affected by the explosion still face tremendous challenges, personally and financially, Bertrand said.
She asked that we continue to keep West in our prayers.
“West still has a ways to go before they recover. Just don’t forget West,” Bertrand said.
To help with tuition assistance for families who lost their homes in the fertilizer explosion, send a check to St. Mary’s Catholic School, c/o Ericka Sammon, Principal, P.O. Box 277, West 76691. Please mark donations for “tuition assistance.”
To help families being assisted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, send a check to Society of St. Vincent de Paul – SDR Central Region, 320 Decker Dr., Suite 100, Irving 75062. Please mark “West” in the memo line on the check.