By Paula Ann Solis
The mayor for the city of West, Tommy Muska, has served as the face of his hometown in ways he never planned this past year. When a fertilizer plant exploded on April 17, 2013, and took the lives of 15 West residents, this small Texas town suddenly had the attention of the nation. Muska, mayor for less than two years, struggled with the devastation of losing his home while trying to rebuild a city covered in ashes.
One year later, Muska sat down with the Lariat at his office in West where he manages an insurance business. He discussed the role divine providence had in rebuilding the town, the memories he still replays from that day one year ago and what the West of tomorrow will look like.
Q: As the representative for West in the media, you are often openly emotional in your expression and you appear to have a strong relationship with the city’s residents. When did that relationship begin?
A: I was born and raised here. I grew up in this town, went to the local McLennan Community College and the area that was devastated was my neighborhood. When I was 8 years old I moved there — I knew the people. Most of the older people were there when we built our home in the 60s and I had a very close connection with that neighborhood. That gave me the ability to not only be the mayor but also be their friend, their little boy down the street, cry with them, get them through those first days and the stress and anxiety that everybody was feeling. So yes, I am passionate about this town, probably to a fault. But it’s a strong town and these are people I truly adore and I can’t say enough about how strong and resilient these people are.
Q: Did serving as mayor while also losing your family’s home prove difficult?
A: I think it was one in the same, and I think that’s where God really played a role because He’s been preparing me for this probably for a long time. It happened on my watch, it happened when a born-and-raised local boy was the mayor, the leader. Not saying that any of the previous mayors wouldn’t have done as good a job, but they weren’t born and raised here. They didn’t live in that neighborhood. They didn’t have that close personal relationship. However things happen, they happen for a reason and I think being their friend and mayor really helped. I could tell them as a friend and as a mayor it was going to be OK.
Q: Looking back on that day, what do you remember from the moment the explosion occurred to when the dust finally settled?
A: I was headed towards the fertilizer plant when it exploded. I parked my truck and started walking. I was about a block and a half away and, when it blew up, I think it was more of a shock. I don’t remember anything falling around me; I just got back in the truck, moved over and started putting out the fire at the intermediate school. Then we started triaging, and Marty Crawford and Larry Hykel opened up the football field. I went in disaster mode. I didn’t really have a lot on my mind other than knowing my family was OK and that was the first thing I did. I called them and they were on the other side of town so I told them just go get a room in the hotel. We didn’t have a house to go back to, and I didn’t see them until later. I didn’t know about the deaths of my friends until later a number of hours after it occurred.
Q: National, state and local organizations reached out to your community in a large way. Is there an organization that surprised you with their generosity?
A: I think all of them surprised me at the generous donations both monetary and physical. We had volunteers here from the moment it happened from the Methodist church, the Catholic church, the Baptist church along with the Salvation Army and Red Cross. I think part of the reason our recovery was successful is because this was a volunteer-driven recovery. They all worked together and a year later we’ve made great strides.
Q: Although for the most part organizations were helpful, was there a time when you felt let down by an entity?
A: I would have preferred the declaration from the president been accepted the first time. That was a little frustrating in order to get FEMA help, but they did reconsider after Gov. Perry sent in a very nice appeal letter. So, that did happen it just took a little time. I’m not very patient so I screamed and hollered pretty much the whole time and well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. As of today, we have secured all funding from all entities. Everything is in place for the city to fix the infrastructure and it took less than one year. Two days less, but it took less than one year. That’s a model for the country to see how a disaster can actually be successful, if there is word for that. I don’t think disasters can be successful, but we have come a long way in a year and I’m very proud of the coordination between all the entities.
Q: Has the mood in West changed in one year or are there still strong resonances from that day lingering in the town?
A: The whole city and all the citizens have gone through various stages of emotion and feelings. From anger to dismay, worry to frustration, all to thankfulness, forgiveness and hope. A lot of people are smiling. I think I would describe this city as resilient and hopeful and that’s where we’re moving. Of course with this anniversary we’ve got to remember the price that was paid, the 15 people that died, the 12 firefighters and the other three individuals. Like Joey [Pustejovsky, 29, one of the fallen firefighters], I can still see him today. He had this little fresh face like a baby face and a dimple. We all still miss him dearly and the families surely do. You can’t get him back. You’ve just got to keep him in our thoughts and prayers. Especially the families, they’re going through a horrific time.
Q: You mentioned in the past to the Lariat that once financial concerns are in order you wanted to focus on the mental health recovery for West. How has that been going?
A: Dr. Jim Ellor from Baylor is helping us a great deal. He’s offered his services through his department and personally. The doctor from the hearing department came over and did free hearing checks. I’m supposed to go back and see her because I failed my hearing test and do a more thorough follow up. But there is still the problem that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Getting people to open up and to realize they may need to talk to their preacher or talk to a counselor is difficult. My wife thinks I need to do the same thing and I promised her after all this is over I will go seek some professional help. You can’t see mental, posttraumatic stress from what happened. It’s hard to get help for something you can’t put your finger on. That’s my goal for the next year now that funding is all taken care of, to make sure we have the people in place so if somebody needs to talk, they’ll be able to talk to somebody.
Q: With issues like health still prevalent in the community, discussing the reintroduction of a fertilizer plant seems a difficult task but it has already begun in town meetings. What has the reaction been to this?
A: That was under the KIA group, a group St. Vincent de Paul is helping fund. They are a consultant group on economic development and bringing ideas to West. We are an agricultural town and we lost a fertilizer plant. As it turns out, a lot of people are already talking about it in coffee shops and so forth. Farmers need a place to get their stuff, to get their chemicals. They’re going to Hubbard and Hillsboro. I think it’s vital we have it here. I think it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people but I think if we do it right, we do it slow enough, we educate the community, we get a safe plant that’s going to be state of the art steel and concrete, that would make a big difference. Also, zone it to where no one builds around it. That was a mistake our forefathers made. If we make sure it’s zoned right and constructed right, it could be safe. It would be the safest fertilizer plant ever built if it were built here, I could tell you that.
Q: What do you say to those who oppose the idea of a fertilizer plant in West?
A: It’s a sore subject, but you can’t just stop doing something because it hurts you. If you burn yourself on the stove, do you never use the stove again or are you more careful when you use the stove? If you have a knife and you cut yourself with that knife, do you never use the knife again? No, you’re more careful when you use the knife. You can’t just block out something because it hurts you. You have to be more careful going forward and make sure you learned from you’re mistakes so you don’t cut yourself again. That’s my personal theory, how I feel and how this city feels might be completely different. But I think we do need that industry here in some form or fashion.
Q: The memorial service marking one year will bring to surface difficult emotions for the city. How did you handle this delicate issue?
A: I appointed a Blue Ribbon committee to structure the event so we’d have some organization to it. I think they’re going to do a wonderful job. We have Ken Starr who’s going to give opening comments, the Baylor Senior Choir will sing some songs and Baylor is going to be a very influential part of that service. It’s going to be an uplifting service. We talked to the families and they don’t want bagpipes, they’ve had enough of those. They want it to be a celebration of their loved ones’ lives and a celebration of the progress that this town has made. I think it’s going to be a very positive, hopeful message. There won’t be anybody from West participating other than myself and some preachers so they will all be able to be in the audience because it’s for them. It’s for the firemen, the firemen’s wives, the widows, the families, along with the people who lost houses and friends. We want it to be a reflection of the year. It’s a benchmark – there’s closure. If you loose somebody, you go by days, you go by months, you go by years. We’ve gone through a year and they’ve survived that. Now they go for number two and then number three.
Q: What do you see for that future West that will have survived two, three or five years after this tragedy?
A: I’m going to try to get through tomorrow and that’s all I can do. I see this town moving forward and growing. I think with the interstate being complete next year, we’re going to have a lot of economic development opportunities for the west side of Interstate 35 which is going to help bring in some industry. Like it or not, we’ve been put on the map and we’ve had a number of inquiries from various industries. A flag manufacturer and some other companies are trying to put operations here. With Union Pacific right on our back door and our front door is I-35, it’s a great opportunity for some kind of distribution center. If there is a positive out of this, some companies may see West, may see our location and our resilience and our people and how we handled this and look at the possibility of moving operations here. Obviously, as mayor, that is a plus for the city. I don’t know what the new normal is going to be for West. We’re going to have to find that out as time goes on. It’ll be different, it’ll look different, it’ll feel different but it’ll be good. I swear, I promise.