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Town devastated by fertilizer explosion is guided by the West way

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Story highlights

A deadly fertilizer company explosion rocked this central Texas town

West is rich in Czech heritage, home of the kolache and has a special way

"We cry together. We laugh together. We survive together," woman says

West, Texas CNN —  

Next to the 24-hour Czech Stop off I-35 in central Texas, travelers line up to get a taste of the pastries and breads that define this community.

But to really know West, a small town catapulted into the news last week, you have to venture about half a mile east. There, past the Ole Czech Smoke House selling sausages and the flags flying at half-staff, the people tell the story.

People like the men spotted in the dark and wonderfully cluttered-with-kitsch aisles of Czech Point Collectibles & Antiques. They, and others who will come and go throughout the day, sit around a small table, fueled by coffee the owner, Edward Havel, keeps pouring. He brews 12 pots a day and offers up fresh pastries from The Village Bakery across the street, the first Czech bakery that helped shape West. They shoot the breeze, swap stories, find comfort.

They are among the longtime – in most cases lifetime – residents who cared about this town long before the world took notice. Before a fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Company on April 17 changed everything.

The blast killed at least 14, wounded more than 200 and destroyed dozens of homes in this town of 2,800. A memorial service, which President Barack Obama is expected to attend, is scheduled for Thursday.

The men sipping coffee here knew everyone who died that night. But they’re not ready to go there.

What they are willing to talk about is what makes West, West.

It’s the sort of place where shop owner Havel, 60, can point to the guy sitting next to him and say, “His daddy delivered me for $96.”

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Finding the way

One of the regulars at Havel’s shop is Bobby Allen, 59, the town artist – and an eccentric – who often doubles as a sign painter.

He stands 6-foot-6, has long golden and graying hair with a beard to match, sports a big cowboy hat adorned with turkey feathers and a small beaded Pawnee talisman meant to give him power. Around his neck hang the tips of deer antlers and gold arrowheads – “in case I run out of money,” he says. He made the suede vest he wears. Strangers interrupt him as he saunters down the sidewalk in his size 13 boots. They want to pose with him for pictures.

Stroll these streets and Allen’s work is everywhere: The Saint Nicholas of Myra paintings on the windows of the old Best Theater, which stopped showing movies decades ago and was last used for the big Christmas bazaar. The trains above the entry of the Out West Bar & Grill. The image of “an old Czech sausage eater” on the front of Nors Sausage & Burger House.

Three days before the fertilizer explosion, he painted the windowpanes of an empty building next to his friend Havel’s Czech Point, announcing “Future Home of the History of West Museum.” Plywood now hangs where that work once was.

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But for all the painting he has done around town, religious requests trump most. “I’ve painted more pictures of Jesus and Mother Mary – well, and Willie Nelson – than anything else,” he says. Nelson grew up in nearby Abbott and people here see him as one of their own.

Allen’s prone to make colorful pronouncements when he remembers the blast. “It blew the hair right off Jimbo’s horse,” he says. Or, “Hell, I was standing outside and it blew my hat off. Took me three hours to find it!” Neither of which is true. He smiles and says he just likes talking.

How to help

Allen lives about four miles from the blast site, about as far away from it as one can be in West. Even so, it cracked the windshield of his old Chevy truck.

Later on this day, we pile into his truck and head out onto a road he can’t name. It’s just one of the area’s farm-to-market roads. Leaving the town center, we pass silos of livestock feed. The green of farms stretches far to the east.

Allen chews tobacco, a spittoon locked between his thighs, and gestures out his window as we travel the road that parallels where the fertilizer company once stood. That’s the high school, its roof torn up. Over there, you can’t see anything – that’s where the explosion was. He takes us to the Playdium Pool, the largest concrete pool in Texas when it was built in the ‘40s. Next door is the old skating rink where Saturday dance parties used to be held. “Nothing going on in there for a hundred years,” he says. Heading back into the town center, he motions to Westex Welding: “This is a shop run by one of the guys who got killed.”

He and others say the fertilizer distribution site wasn’t supposed to be in West. West just sort of grew that way. But he guesses no more than 10 residents actually worked there. The other night, Allen says, he was up late talking to a close friend who’s the son of the fertilizer company’s owners. The guy’s voice was hoarse, what with all the talking with investigators and all. He said his parents are “taking it real bad,” Allen says.

Water donations stack up at the site of Westfest, a fall celebration of Czech heritage.
Water donations stack up at the site of Westfest, a fall celebration of Czech heritage.

He then heads south to the fair and rodeo grounds, where each Labor Day weekend West throws Westfest, a popular festival that draws tens of thousands to celebrate Czech heritage. Now, it’s a sea of volunteers, unloading donations by the truckload, sorting and tripping over piles and boxes. Separate from the food and the stacks of bottled water are clothes, toiletries, dishes. There are cleaning necessities, books and diapers. Toys, small appliances and school supplies. It’s all here for anyone in West who needs it. “More than we can use,” Allen says under his breath, looking at the mayhem.

He leaves with a blank journal, a bag of mechanical pencils he likes to use when he draws and a Cowboy Bible New Testament, “written in a language even I can understand,” he says.

The people of West aren’t sure what to make of the media that’s swarmed their town, the lines of TV trucks and cameras camped out in front of City Hall and next to the gazebo. Some resent questions demanding details about those who died, and the city slickers who seem to want gore or tears on command. In Nors Sausage & Burger House, which has fallen silent except for the press conference playing on the large flat-screen TV, the residents cheer when a local official slaps down a reporter who asks a question that’s already been answered.

Others, who’ve never faced this sort of onslaught before, are simply nervous about their words.

Back at Edward Havel’s shop, a woman who already said her goodbyes suddenly shows up again, visibly worried. She pulled a U-turn in her truck because she needs to say more and say it better.

“West is a family-oriented community. We grow together. We cry together. We laugh together. We survive together,” she says. “We help each other. West always has open arms. … It’s an everyday routine. It’s the way we are.”

If someone has cancer, there’s a fundraiser to help. Car wreck injuries? A sick child? A burned down home? The town steps up for that, too. Heck, one guy with only weeks to live recently held a benefit to raise money for his own cremation.

At the table is Melvin Coleman, who counts among his relatives-by-marriage nephew Scott Podsednik, a professional baseball player who was drafted from West High and