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West, Texas On the Road to Emotional Recovery After Explosion Ruled Arson

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
Aftermath of the 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Authorities now say it was caused by arson.

From Texas Standard:

On April 17, around 7:50 in the early evening, an explosion at the Adair Grain and West Fertilizer Company rocked the small town of West, Texas. That was three years ago.

Fifteen people died, including 12 volunteers fighting the fire at the plant. More than 160 people were injured. The blast was so severe it caused a small earthquake – the concussion waves were visible to the naked eye. A nearby middle school, nursing home and apartment complex were demolished. Neighborhood homes were destroyed.

It seemed possible that the fires could have been started by a short circuit somewhere – the facility was old – or that a golf cart with dodgy electrics might have been the spark that set off the blaze. But state and federal officials say the explosion at West was the outcome of a criminal act.

Four hundred people were interviewed and investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas state fire marshal’s office. Officials say they’ve ruled out any accidental or natural reasons for the fulmination.

The perpetrator is still unknown, with a $50,000 reward offered for information leading to that person’s arrest.

John Crowder, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in West, was visiting a nearby town when the news broke. He rushed home to help lead recovery efforts. He prayed with families and acted as a resource. His own home was one of those flattened by the explosion.

He says West’s climate after the announcement Wednesday was not so much one of fear, but of anger. The town had learned to move on from the explosion. Today almost all of the houses have been rebuilt, there’s a new nursing home and a new school will open at the start of the next school year. But Crowder says the new information is an emotional setback.

“Over those three years most of us in town had just kind of settled into the fact that we'll never know,” Crowder says. “Now you've got to face the reality that it was indeed some kind of arson and it's like tearing the scab off the wound."

Crowder says it’s possible a climate of suspicion could begin to permeate the community. But he says there’s something he’d like the residents of West to keep in mind.

“The ATF has told us that the fire was set intentionally. It doesn't mean that someone intended the explosion,” he says. “For whatever reason they might have been setting a fire ... I just can't even begin to imagine that anyone intentionally caused the explosion itself. Hopefully, as the community starts looking at one another trying to answer questions, I hope we can keep that distinction in mind."

Years later the community is still working on restoring another aspect of their lives, a type of emotional restoration, Crowder says.

"It has been incredibly difficult,” Crowder says. “We've made great progress. However, it's not the kind of thing that you just rebuild. You can rebuild your house. You can finally get the insurance to come through and put all that back together. That doesn't happen emotionally that easily. And so we've been changed forever.

“It's affected our way of life, our way of viewing the world, our way of seeing the people around us. … We learned what that new version of normal was like and now that's taken away too so we've gotta start over again."

Prepared for web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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