By Jordan Corona
The sun set behind West, Texas Thursday evening while citizens gathered at a memorial service At the fairgrounds off Main Street to remember a terrible surprise in their backyard—the fertilizer plant explosion that claimed the lives of 15 people last year.
At 7:51 p.m. citizens of West celebrated how far the community had come rebuilding homes, remodeling broken buildings and restoring what had been lost a year ago.
The local Sherriff’s office said more than 2,000 people attended the memorial service held on the first year anniversary of the tragic explosion. West has a population just over 2,800.
After the Baylor Singing Seniors opened the event with an arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” ministers from the community, Mayor Tommy Muska and President and Chancellor Ken Starr spoke to the crowd. Father Ed Karasek, of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption closed the evening, offering a blessing for the city.
“I hope by this service and by hanging on to each other and by God’s grace and mercy we’ll begin to heal,” Rev. Terry McElrath said in his address at the beginning of the memorial. “We have lost any doubt that love is greater pain, courage is greater than fear and kindness abounds in the hearts of people across this great state, the country, even the world.”
Pastor of First Baptist Church West, John Crowder said his church helped distribute some of the donations for the community in the aftermath of the tragedy.
In his talk about setting goals and accomplishing them like the Apostle Paul, Crowder said, “Forgetting what lies behind may be the most difficult to do. We won’t let our disaster define us and we won’t let our past confine us.”
But moving forward is still much easier said than done for many in the community.
Robert Payne is the chaplain for the West Volunteer Fire Department. He said the community’s volunteer firefighters are learning to deal with the loss of their colleagues and friends one year since they were killed in the bast.
“We lost trucks and personnel,” Payne said. “Everything’s been replaced but you can’t replace those lives,” Payne said. “We’ve still got guys dealing with the emotional and mental issues. We’re down in numbers right now, but we’re strong in spirit.”
Mayor Muska is one of the city’s volunteer firefighters who haS opted to take a leave of absence from the department, but he’s anything but removed from the community’s sense of faith and progress.
Last night he opened his brief address reminiscing about the people, most of whom were first responders, who died in the explosion.
“West was a strong, faithful community, a close-knit community before this ever occurred.” Payne said. “Since then, it’s just magnified one hundred fold. It’s remarkable to see how much closer we’ve become and to think of the resiliency of the kids in our schools.”
Pat Lednichy lived her whole life in West and up until last year, had a house on Reagan Drive for 28 years.
Lednichy was returning home from Hewitt after leaving her grandsons for baseball practice when she noticed flames and smoke rising from her neighborhood.
“Somebody was yelling ‘you need to get out of here, this thing may blow again,’” she said. “I didn’t loose a lot of stuff like a lot of people did. I lost my house, but things can be replaced.”
Lednichy’s eyes watered and her voice cracked when she talked about her husband who died in 1987.
“When you loose a life, that’s worse than loosing a house or anything else,” she said. “Life get’s turned upside down for a while but as you go on, you keep living and just do what you have to do.”
Lednichy was staying at her mother’s house after the blast, but is planning to move to a newly reconstructed home later this month.
For now, tragedy is a whole year behind the small Texas community. And last night’s memorial was for remembering loss and hope.