By Kat Worrall
“Blessed are those who give their lives for others.”
Those words, inscribed on a memorial plaque, is one of the ways a small Texas town is commemorating those who lost their lives.
One year ago today, the West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded, killing 15 and injuring over 160. As the town continues to heal, rebuild and evolve, West has created memorials to ensure that though the wounds may eventually heal and leveled buildings may be revived, those lost in the explosion will not be forgotten.
Prayer Garden Plaque
Ray and Clarice Snokhous, residents of West, Texas, saw the impact of the West explosion firsthand.
Ray, the Honorary Consul General of the Czech Republic for Texas, was about 400 yards away from the explosion, while his wife Clarice was home and felt a jolt. Two of Ray’s cousins, both volunteer firefighters, were killed in the blast.
“You realize how precious life is — how fragile life is — only when you see it under these conditions and these circumstances,” Ray said. “You have the full impact of the hurt that follows and the devastation that causes the hurt.”
The Snokhouses took that hurt and funded and designed a granite memorial plaque for the 12 first responders who lost their lives in the explosion.
The plaque is in the Infant Jesus of Prague Ancestral Prayer Garden next to the Snokhous’ church, St. Mary’s Assumption Catholic Church, on Harrison Street in West. Clarice, along with a few committee members, founded the garden four years ago to honor the Infant Jesus of Prague, a prominent religious figure in the Czech Republic.
The top of the memorial plaque reads “God Bless Our Fallen Brothers,” and then has an emblem of the West Fire Department. Underneath “First Responders – April 17, 2013,” the 12 deceased first responders’ names are listed. At the bottom, the phrase “Blessed are those who give their lives for others” is inscribed.
“There is no greater sacrifice than to give one’s life for another,” Ray said.
The garden also includes a large Italian marble statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Benches line the inside of the iron fence, and Clarice said the garden will always be open for visitors to pray or meditate.
“It is a place that people can come to and to remember our fallen brothers,” Clarice said. “That was what our aim was, that this would be a place that they could come and pay homage to them and remember them and say a prayer for them.”
Though the 12 men were not all Catholic, all of the families, despite religious affiliation, attended a mass and plaque dedication at St. Mary’s and at the garden on Nov. 24, 2013.
“You know what you feel and you try to express your feelings,” Ray said. “I want those people to be remembered there for the bravery that they demonstrated and the loss of their precious lives.”
Firefighter Memorial Wall
The day following the West explosion, Donald Rogers woke up in his Hubbard home, less than 30 miles from the explosion site, and began to build a memorial wall in front of his property, right off the highway at 6808 Farm to Market 2114 in Hubbard, Texas.
“I woke up in the morning, and something told me to go build the wall,” he said.
Within three days, the basics of the wall were completed, but he continues to add to the wall today, even working on a firemen’s bell to add to the site this week.
Rogers’ memorial includes the firemen’s wall, which has 12 plaques, with each of the deceased West firefighters names inscribed, a centered emblem of the firemen’s prayer and brass firemen’s symbols in the two corners.
Concrete benches also surround the site, giving visitors a place to sit and think.
“This is for people to come and do what they want – just honor the wall,” Rogers said.
Rogers, who is now retired but used to work as a contractor, buys the materials and does the construction himself, but welcomes any ideas or help.
“It gives me something to do that’s worthwhile,” he said of his project.
Rogers is also the founder of the Veteran’s Honor Wall, which is located next to the firemen’s wall. Rogers, an Army veteran who served two tours in the Vietnam War, built the wall two years ago to honor veterans and said that wall has grown “like wildfire.”
Any veteran can have his name added to the Veteran’s Honor Wall, but the firemen’s wall is reserved for deceased firefighters from any area, not just from the West area.
“I feel these guys are all heroes too,” Rogers said. “They go out and protect our families and are taking care of our people while we are overseas.”
While he said it will take him a while to fill the 16-foot-long, 5-foot-tall firefighters wall, Rogers said he will continue to honor fallen heroes.
“I do this because it makes me feel good to do something for other people,” Rogers said. “Nobody else will go out of their way to do something as extravagant as this. It might bring some people some peace of mind.”
Rogers encourages anyone to come and visit and even has two parking areas for visitors. The cost to add a plaque to the firemen’s wall is $50.
One night soon after the explosion, an anonymous donor placed a firefighter statue outside of the West Fire Department. Fire Chief George Nors Sr. **I thought this was correct AP style?** said he still doesn’t know who brought the statue or how it showed up, but said it is a memorial to the firemen at the station.
The statue is a replica of a fireman clothed in bunker gear, firemen’s outer protective clothing, and includes a helmet, coat, boots and an air pack.
Through these three memorials, one year after the tragedy, West is remembering the lives lost. The hurt is still evident throughout the town, but Ray Snokhous believes it is not a material hurt.
“Everything that is material can be replaced,” he said. “It’s really those that we know, the first responders, who are still in deep grief and it will take years for that to ever heal. Parents don’t bury children – children bury parents. When you talk to those who lost loved ones, it is a different experience.”
Yet as he and the others heal and remember the past, he believes the community, which he calls faith-based, can heal.
“This town is vibrant,” Ray said. “It has come back together.”