Rising from the ashes; City of West celebrates rebuilding one year later
By Rae Jefferson
A handful of concrete slabs occupy the spaces where various homes once stood in the town of West. The newly erected beams of these houses rise like wooden skeletons, waiting for flesh in the form of floors, walls and ceilings.
Reconstruction continues one year after the devastating April 17, 2013, fertilizer plant explosion that left many surrounding homes and an apartment uninhabitable. Some property owners were forced to demolish existing structures and rebuild.
John Crowder, pastor of First Baptist Church of West, said the costs of reconstruction were often too high for owners to bear, sparking a generous outpouring of support for those affected via local recovery organizations. His church, just one of many organizations involved with reconstructing homes, has helped build seven homes from the ground up.
“We have been able to do quite a bit because so many folks were generous in their donations to us,” he said.
Crowder said the church has received almost $900,000 in donations from the public. They have also received supplies and equipment donated from construction companies and help from about 2,500 volunteers.
“I don’t want the church to look like we’re bragging about this stuff — we’ve just coordinated a lot of different efforts,” he said.
The church began reconstruction about one month after the explosion and has been at work since that time. More than 60 homes and an apartment complex were demolished at the church’s expense, collectively saving owners about $1 million. The church has also covered about $450,000 in other goods and services, including monetary gifts given to families in need, leveling homes and providing home health care.
“The reason we were able to do this is because folks were generous and other entities worked with us to do this,” Crowder said.
Volunteers have primarily been from Baptist churches across Texas, although groups have also included out-of-state churches and students from the Baylor Law School, Crowder said. The church is expecting another 500 volunteers this summer.
Volunteers have also frequented the West Long-Term Recovery, an organization focused on meeting the needs of the explosion victims. Rosanne Lockhart, the organization’s administrative assistant, said she has participated in construction with other volunteers.
“It was satisfying to be a participant,” she said.
Lockhart said she has volunteered with West Long-Term Recovery as an administrative assistant since August, but had the opportunity Wednesday to do construction with a group of women at a badly-damaged home that was being renovated.
“We all pitched in and did a full day of sanding, sheet rocking and insulation,” she said. “It’s fun and I think women can do just about all the construction they want to.”
West Long-Term Recovery is also expecting more volunteers this summer, Lockhart said. Both local and out-of-state groups will be doing major reconstructive projects, with many of these groups being college students. One college group that studies landscaping technologies will help develop landscaping for homes that are fully constructed, Lockhart said.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, referring to the continuous flow of volunteers helping the organization. “When they come, they come because they want to be here. Everybody is enthusiastic and there’s a feeling of camaraderie when everyone comes together to do what needs to be done.”
Crowder said although he is not sure when the church will be done with construction, he expects most of their work to be finished by the end of the summer.
“I can’t say for sure when we’ll be done, but as long as there are needs, we’re going to be working,” he said.
A memorial service will be held tonight at 7:15 p.m. at the West Fair and Rodeo Grounds on Main Street.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said the memorial will celebrate the lives of loved ones lost in the explosion, as well as the progress made by the town during the past year. Attendees can expect to hear an opening address given by Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr and a vocal performance by the Baylor Senior Choir. All West ISD schools will be closed in remembrance of the explosion.