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Year Since West Fertilizer Plant Explosion is One 'Full of Questioning'

It’s been one year since a fertilizer plant exploded in the town of West, Texas – just north of Waco.
15 people were killed and more than 150 were injured. Dozens of buildings were also destroyed in the blast.

A year later there are many signs of recovery and rebuilding in the small town.
But, for some, the rebuilding process has been difficult.

West resident Loretta Volcik says overall, the past year has been filled with one thing: Questioning.

“Just a big question," she says, sitting in her house. "'Why' and 'what next'? And I know you should never ask ‘what next?’ It’s like you don’t ever pray for patience. You don’t ask ‘what next?’ but sometimes you just can’t help it.”

Also questions like: what exactly caused the explosion? Investigators know it was triggered by a fire, but it’s still unclear what caused the fire.

Then there are questions about how to properly file for federal assistance. Volcik had to replace windows and a door damaged in the blast and she wonders if there are more repairs to come.

“I look at my roof and say am I going to have to call FEMA out here again? Did we miss something on the roof? But I don’t know," she says.

Another question: when will Volcik’s sister and brother-in-law start to rebuild their home? It was destroyed in the blast and they’ve lived with Volcik ever since.

Today, the sound of construction fills Stillmeadow Drive and the surrounding streets as residents rebuild. Brand new homes sit next to empty plots of land -- but not everyone is rebuilding. 

Right now, that includes Volcik’s sister Jeanette Holocek and her husband, James. It’s not that they don’t want to rebuild, they say local politics is the problem.

Just as they were unrolling the blueprints of their old home, the city decided it wanted to rebuild the park next door and, eventually, build a memorial there for those who died in the explosion. But to do that, Stillmeadow Drive will be turned into a cul de sac which would cut off the Holocek’s from town.

“Technically, I’ll have to go out of town to go to town," says Jeanette Holocek. "And [James] is on oxygen. If I call an ambulance—it’s got to go all the way—and that couple minutes could mean the difference.”

Volcik says everyone just wants to rebuild and have things go back to normal.

“You want what you had before," Volcik says. "And that does go back to the cul de sac. You want what you had before.”

The Holocek's say they don’t know if they’ll ever rebuild, but returning to what was “normal” before the explosion could be tough, say mental health experts and counselors helping people here deal with the tragedy.

“Life did change," says Elizabeth Timmons, program director of the Heart of Texas Counseling Center in Waco. The center has counseled around 1,300 people touched by the explosion.  

“This was an unexpected event that kind of changed things forever for them and I think we need to be empathic about that," Timmons says. 

She says a year later, people are still dealing with the tragedy.

"It is an anniversary," Timmons says. "And so there are folks who just have been forever changed. So, for them, they don’t want to forget.”

One sign the city wants to get back to normal: local leaders are discussing the idea of building a fertilizer plant nearby.

West Mayor Tommy Muska says there would have to be some changes, like zoning restrictions to prevent housing from being built nearby and any plant would need to have a sprinkler system. Ultimately, he says, the town needs to move on.

“You cannot block out something that hurts you," Muska says. "If you burn your hand on the stove, do you never use a stove again? No, you use a stove. You’re just more careful.”

Muska says it will be some time before anything is decided. He says on this one-year anniversary, the focus is on remembering those who died.

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