The Texas town of West is known across the state as a Czech cultural hub. It’s a town famous for its local bakeries, which serve scores of kolaches every day. But six years ago, the tiny town, about 20 miles north of Waco just off Interstate 35, was thrust into the national spotlight when a local fertilizer plant exploded, killing 15 people.
The blast damaged schools, homes and other property, and many wondered if West could ever recover. Then in May 2016, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled the explosion as arson. Although no one has been charged with the crime, the ruling was salt in the wound for many residents.
Last weekend, the town unveiled its Fallen Heroes Memorial honoring those who lost their lives. Despite the persistent pouring rain that forced the celebration inside, families, the local Boy Scouts troop and members of the volunteer fire department all sat together in the new West High School auditorium to honor the lives lost and remember the day that changed their community forever. The high school was one of many buildings damaged by the explosion and was rebuilt in 2015.
“Today, we gather to honor 12 brave first responders who gave their lives in service to all of us, and also our three beloved citizens who lost their lives on that tragic day,” said McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya, who ran the ceremony.
On April 17, 2013, the West Fertilizer Company’s storage and distribution facility exploded, killing 15 and injuring more than 150. The blast leveled city blocks and left a crater 93 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The people of West have been rebuilding ever since. On Saturday, the long-awaited memorial was unveiled.
“And now, we’re deeply moved and very excited to finally be able to present to the community of West and the state of Texas the West Fallen Heroes Memorial,” Paryea said. “This beautiful memorial will help us always honor and ensure that we always remember …”
He then read the names of the dead.
Because of the rain, officials unveiled the memorial to the crowd via video. It’s about 100 yards away from where the fertilizer plant once stood and has a reflecting pool surrounded by 15 plaques, each with a photo and a short biography of each person who died.
Among those at the unveiling was Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“As a person who has faced tragedy myself, I know what goes through the hearts and souls and minds of the people affected by this. I’ve empathized so much with the tragedy they faced. But I’m inspired so much, and Texas is inspired so much by the strength and resiliency with which they have responded,” Abbott said.
Of the 15 who died, 12 were first responders. In their honor, firefighters rang a “last alarm” — a bell-ringing ceremony for firefighters who die in the line of duty.
The memorial project cost roughly $300,000, most of which was covered by donations. People gave what they could, whether it was money or labor. Abbott thanked the man who coordinated the memorial project.
“I particularly want to express my deep gratitude for Joe Pustejovsky. I want to thank him for his leadership to help guide the pathway to establish this remarkable memorial — something that will be a lasting tribute to the heroes who lost their lives, including his son Joey,” Abbott said.
The Pustejovskys are longtime West residents; Joey was a volunteer firefighter, and Joe is a City Council member.
In a town as small as West, everyone was personally affected by the explosion. Valerie Payne is one of many citizens who attended the memorial ceremony.
“I grew up here in West. My uncle is a volunteer firefighter; he was there during the explosion and was injured, as well as an old neighbor of ours that we grew up with, Joey Pustejovsky, who didn’t make it, and so we’re here to support him and his family,” Payne said.
In many ways, the memorial dedication served as an opportunity for West to stop and reflect on how the community has recovered over the last six years. Abbott acknowledged that progress.
“West, Texas, was broken that day. But by God, you remained unbowed in your belief of what West could be and what this community would eventually evolve into,” Abbott said.
It’s been a long six years for West, and the ceremony was bittersweet, especially for people like Payne.
“Everybody’s come a long way, emotionally, physically, all of it,” she said.
Throughout the ceremony, a phrase was repeated over and over, including by West Mayor Tommy Muska: “God bless Texas, and God bless West,” he said.
It’s a phrase that the people of West have adopted as a unifying mantra as they’ve rebuilt their town and pieced their community back together.