Town devastated by fertilizer explosion is guided by the West way

CNN
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 5:22pm

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."

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.

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.

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.

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 played with the Chicago White Sox to win the 2005 World Series.

Coleman's wife lost a cousin in the blast. And Coleman's mother was evacuated from the nursing home by his daughter, who used to be a beautician there. She peered through a half broken window to see her grandmother's eyes peering out from the debris piled around her, and kicked in the remaining glass so she could get in to save her.

That's the West way.

A mini-9/11

From the old tin shop at the south end of Main Street in the town center, a person can walk to the other end, or Wild Bill's Outlaw Steakhouse, in about seven minutes. And that's with stops to take notes. The same is true going east to west along Oak Street, the other main road, and across the train tracks.

Amid the antique shops, bars and restaurants, there's a rodeo shop, weathered appliance store and barbershop with walls covered in guitars and old photos. Closed signs dot most doors. Plywood is nailed in some storefronts where windows once were.

A small bouquet in the door of Donna's House of Flowers is tied with ribbons that read "with sympathy." In the window, there's a photo from last month's 20th annual barbecue cook-off of those who volunteered with the West Fire Department. Another arrangement in the door -- in red, white and blue -- is from Donna and bears a note, which reads in part:

"I lost my best friend and husband Doug on Wednesday, along with his brother Robert. My family and I are mourning their loss and appreciate the love and support we have received from friends, neighbors, community members and complete strangers. ... Out of respect for all the firefighters and first responders we will be closing the flower shop until further notice."

Folks wear T-shirts bearing slogans like "God bless West." Children sit behind tables selling cupcakes and lemonade to help their community. Watching the story of the Boston marathon bombing unfold early last week, people here talked about how they couldn't imagine that sort of shock and communal pain.

Now some are calling this their mini-9/11 -- though they wonder, given the size of West, if this hurts more.

The sense of family and community responsibility has certainly played out over the past week. Among those who benefited, but also hoped to give, is Emil "Sonny" Fridel.

At 90, Fridel is still a man about town. He drives himself to the library, frequents The Village Bakery and makes regular stops for coffee at Czech Point. For years, he was a supervisor at the post office, a job that allowed him to know everyone.

This town was destined to become his home the day he fell for a "pretty West girl" at a local dance hall. The year was 1945, and he'd just returned from service abroad in the U.S. Army.

Pearl was an artist, a woman who taught many in town how to paint. Fridel's home pays homage to his wife's work -- including china plates and more than 200 dolls, their faces hand painted. Oil paintings dot the walls and lean against furniture. After she died, about a year and a half ago, the library held a retrospective of her work.

Fridel visited his pretty West girl every day in the nursing home where she lived before her death. The West Rest Haven was destroyed in the fertilizer blast, its 133 residents evacuated. It was still one of his favorite places to go, even though she is gone. He went there almost daily.

When the explosion rocked the area, most West residents didn't know what to think. Some, who lost power and watched pictures crash to the floor, thought it was an earthquake. Others, farther away and less affected, wondered if it was a propane tank blast. One guy, whose house was fine, figured a plane crashed. The artist, Bobby Allen, thought the North Koreans got a bomb and hit nearby Fort Hood.

A woman who lived about half a mile away and was thrown from her couch, looked up at the eerie sky -- a mix of pink, violet, green and a cloud of gray. "It was Stanley Kubrick directing something," she says. "That's how surreal it was."

But Fridel couldn't see any of this. He was in his den several miles southwest and saw his lights flicker. His hearing isn't great, but he couldn't miss that boom. A closet door swung open, as did some cabinets. He poked his head outside, not knowing what he was looking for. Synthie Dulock caught sight of him and came running.

Dulock, who lives next door, explained what had happened and insisted he evacuate with her family. As the news sunk in, he was resistant to go with the Dulocks and made a move toward his own car. There was somewhere else he wanted to go, and she had to stop him.

"He was concerned about people in the nursing home and wanted to help them," she says. "He said, 'They need me. I want to help.'"

No one is more grateful for neighbors like Dulock, who took care of Fridel overnight, than Fridel's daughter, Mary Ann Kubacak, who lives outside Austin, about 100 miles away. But Dulock says she did what anyone in West would do.

"Everyone is always taking care of each other," she says. "You're never going to meet a stranger."

'You don't want to know'

We walk into Mynars Bar, just down the way from Donna's flower shop, as strangers are tossed blue rubber bracelets emblazoned with the words "God is big enough."

At the bar sits a weathered-looking Tanner Atwood, 24. He wears a black cowboy hat, scruffy goatee, his long dark hair pulled back. He's chain smoking and drinking beer, something he's been doing more of since the explosion. The night before, when he was unable to drive, the sheriff just took him home. He says he got to the nursing home before the cops did, but he won't talk about what he saw: "You don't want to know."

He grew up here but left for a while, a "hippy traveler," he says. He came back only two months ago and is working as an apprentice electrician in Waco.

Growing up, he swam in creeks, tried to stay out of trouble and was chased by farmers when he was caught crawfishing on their land. Kids could go anywhere on their bikes, still can; the only rule: Don't go past Czech Stop, or the interstate.

He worked at the pool and pumped gas at the Exxon full-service filling station off the tracks in town. A lot of closed-down stations still dot the area, remnants of when Main Street served as the highway between Dallas and Austin, before I-35 came through.

"It's about as down home as down home gets," he says of West. "The bar you're sitting in was the very first place I had a beer."

Sometimes he stops talking and just stares at his beer. It's Saturday, three days after the explosion, and he's only slept three hours since then. What he saw clearly weighs on him, but he says it hasn't hit him yet.

Honoring a legacy

The support for West comes not just from other Texans, not even just Americans; it's gone global.

Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic ambassador to the United States, sits inside The Village Bakery. Polka music plays out front and American, Texas and Czech Republic flags flap in the wind. This is the ambassador's second trip to West since his appointment in May 2011.

The honorary consul for the Czech Republic in Texas lives in West, and Gandalovic says he lost two cousins in the blast -- Donna's husband and brother-in-law. The ambassador is here to extend condolences to the town on behalf of the Czech Republic. He says in his home country, this story is the No.1 news item and tops social media discussions.

His goal is to identify a project the Czech Republic, and the people living there, can support. A way to help West. The Czech Republic announced Wednesday it will donate 4 million Czech crowns (approximately $200,000) to the town.

Beside the table where he sits is a guest book filled with messages. "God be with West," says one. "Prayers are coming from all over the world," says another. "Blessings to you and the people of West," says a third.

The walls of the bakery are lined with historical photos. They include one of a store that belonged to owner Mimi Montgomery Irwin's great-grandfather, "the first legitimate Czech merchant," she says. While others were farming, "he sent his cuffs and collars to Waco to be starched."

West pride courses through her. She wrote the town history for a book, "Historic McLennan County." She's a descendant of one of the first settlers who came to the area in the mid-19th century, decades before West was formally established in 1882. People came for the land and the agriculture. The railroad brought outsiders, including Czech immigrants who in many ways still define the place.

Walk down the streets of West and you'll see "Vitame vas!" in windows, welcoming you in the Czech language.

Montgomery Irwin's parents opened The Village Bakery in 1952. It was the first Czech bakery in Texas, became the "home of the kolache" -- a traditional pastry filled with fruit or spices -- and set West in a new direction. The success of the kolache, not to mention the traditional strudel, breads and other treats, got others in the business. More bakeries sprouted up. Restaurants began baking their own treats. Even the local Chevron announces on its sign, "Kolaches made fresh daily." The Texas state legislature declared the place "Kolache Capital of Texas."

"This was something ingenious they did," she says of her parents. "They created the market and, additionally, helped create West."

This legacy is the very reason she returned to West six years ago, after 25 years in New York, where she was a vice president of a marketing division at Macy's. After her father passed away and her recently deceased mother's health began to fade, Montgomery Irwin, 68, couldn't stomach the idea of their bakery closing or being sold. She is adopted, an only child, a divorced woman who says she owes her parents everything. The decision was easy.

She marvels at this place and its people. Here, a woman she knows as "Cindy at the bank," who came in for kolaches earlier, is also the Cindy who was working at West Assisted Living -- right near the nursing home -- and single-handedly evacuated its 15 residents. Here, the executive assistant for the county commissioner, a woman Montgomery Irwin says "knows where everyone is buried," volunteers to help run the bakery during this overwhelming time -- and manages to snag portable toilets and a water truck for this crippled part of town.

On this day, after closing, the shopkeeper encounters 30-year-old Sierra Shaw on Oak Street. Shaw, who sang with the Bold Springs Baptist Church choir at Montgomery Irwin's mother's Catholic funeral, races to embrace her friend.

Their hug, like so many others seen around town, seems to be tighter now and lasts longer.

Remaining West

Bells ring outside St. Mary's as people stream in for a standing-room-only Sunday Mass. Grown men, their arms folded across their chests, fight back tears. Couples reach for each other's hands. A man wraps his arms around his wife and daughter, who cries silently. A baby giggles, while another child in a hot pink tutu stands on her tippy toes to peer over a pew -- their innocence not yet lost.

At the corner of Main and Oak, insurance adjusters in crisp white shirts with logos mill about near their company banner. Disaster response and cleanup trucks find parking places. A police officer sits in his car off the busier-than-usual intersection. And a truck offering nonpotable water sits behind him on the train tracks, out of commission since the blast.

A few storefronts down Main, back at the Nors Sausage & Burger House, reporters tapping away on laptops are shooed from tables to make way for regulars, like the parents of one blast victim. They are embraced and then served before any others.

Amid the buzz that surrounds this central Texas town, West remains West and takes care of its own.

A diner at Nors passes over his iPhone to say what he can't express himself. On the screen is a Facebook post from a man who grew up in West and wants others to know what the town means to him.

It's "the walking into bakeries that have been there for years and thinking their ancestors had waited on your ancestors," the man wrote. "It's going to the local grocery store to pick up two things and being able to go right to them because they've not moved in 20 years. ... It's the memories of the chief of police that would pull you over for speeding, chew you out while pointing his finger in your face and end it with a shuffling (of) your hair, a slap on the back and a 'love you boy.' ... There's a sense of 'home' you feel when taking the West exit, no matter where you're coming from, or how long you've been gone."

Around the corner and down Oak a short ways, Edward Havel sits in the back of his store -- his coffee pot full and ready to serve.

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