Texas town residents look for normalcy after deadly fertilizer plant explosion

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

WEST, Texas--If there’s one absolute truth in life, it’s that very few things can stop a little old lady from getting her hair done. Not ill health—and, it turns out, not even a deadly explosion.

On Wednesday a fire and subsequent explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant here leveled five city blocks, killing at least 12 people and injuring more than 160. Some 60 people remain unaccounted for, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said on Friday. At least 150 homes and buildings—including a nursing home and an elementary school—were damaged or destroyed.

But on Friday morning at the Headquarters Beauty Salon on Main Street, Dorothy Kucera was holding court as she does most Fridays from under the blow dryer chair. Her short wet hair had just been freshened with a brunette rinse and wrapped in tiny curlers. And as the dryer purred, she and five other ladies in the salon gossiped about what was going on in town—only this week, the topic was a little more serious.

Kucera’s home is just blocks from the plant. She and her husband, Jerry, had just eaten dinner when the fire broke out. When she saw the flames, she called to her husband, who had been washing dishes, to come outside and look at the huge fire which was rapidly expanding.

“I said, ‘Jerry, you’ve gotta see this,’” she recalled to a rapt audience at the salon on Friday, including a pair of stylists and a tiny elderly woman, whose blueish-gray hair was being unwrapped from curlers.

Kucera said her husband, who uses a walker, at first didn’t want to come out and instead was peering out a window above their kitchen sink. But he did after she insisted—and within seconds, the plant exploded, sending up a plume of smoke she likened to something she’d seen in photos of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“That thing just blew,” she said, matter-of factly. The windows in her house shattered, and the force caused her garage door to buckle, preventing her from getting access to her car to escape. She added that if her husband had been still standing at the kitchen window, he would have been seriously injured “because it was just right there.”

Soon they were evacuated and moved to a local hotel, where they’ve been staying since the explosion. They haven’t been allowed to go back to their house, Kucera said, "And I don't know when we will."

As she spoke about that night, she occasionally paused to update the gaggle on what was happening with other friends. “Barbara’s windows are all blown out,” she said, at one point. And then she spoke of those whom she had heard were dead, whispering their names.

“Nobody knows for sure, but people are talking, and we’ll know soon enough,” Kucera said. “This is a small town.”

Indeed, in a town of less than 3,000 people, everybody knows somebody who was killed or injured or displaced. And many residents are trying to figure out how to cope.

For some, like the ladies at Headquarters, it's keeping their weekly hair appointments. For others, it's opening their stores in hopes of seeing their beloved customers.

West’s tiny downtown district, which sits about a quarter-mile south of the explosion site, survived mostly intact—though many storefronts had their windows blown out by the force of the explosion.

But the damage was sporadic. The West Furniture Store along Oak Street had its entire glass storefront blown out, but less than a block away, shelves of old glassware—including fancy stemware and dishes—displayed in the window of an antique store were untouched, as though nothing had happened.

But many businesses here remained closed—in part, one local said, because the owners had family who had been killed in the blast.

On Friday morning, dozens of television crews crowded the streets, shooting footage of broken glass in the street and trying to interview anyone about what they had heard and seen on Wednesday.

At the West Thrift Shop, the windows were boarded up, but it was open. Inside, owner Maria Galvan was giving away her inventory, including clothes and blankets to the residents who had been displaced.

Galvan had been at a Wal-Mart in Hillsboro, about 15 miles up Interstate 35 from West, when the blast occurred. She said the explosion had caused stuff to fly off the shelves at the store, prompting people to run through the aisles yelling for people to evacuate. “We thought the store had been struck by lightning,” Galvan said.

Only later did she hear the news of the fertilizer plant. While her husband urged her to stay away from her store, Galvan came to work anyway on Thursday—anxious to help people who had been affected by the blast in any way that she could.

But mainly, Galvan said, she was just hoping that her customers and friends would come through the door and let her know that they were OK.

“I just want to see their faces,” she said, breaking into tears. “There’s so much we don’t know, and it’s been hard to reach anybody. I just want to know that people are OK.”

Wiping her eyes, she added, “I just want to know that things will be OK again. That we will be OK.”

But that’s an open question for a small town still trying to gauge the impact of what happened.

State and local officials briefed reporters at a local fairgrounds complex that is usually home to West Fest, an annual celebration of the town’s Czech history. The officials have struggled to give definitive numbers on the casualties, in part because no one was keeping track as people were evacuated during Wednesday’s chaos.

On Friday, a spokesman for the State Department of Public Safety estimated that of the 12 confirmed dead so far, 11 of them were first responders. That’s roughly half of West’s volunteer firefighter force—all of whom were well known in town.

“Everybody knows somebody,” a woman said, as she was sweeping up glass outside a closed flower store on Oak Street. She declined to give her name. “This is going to be a big wound.”

Headquarters, which has been in business for 39 years, reopened on Thursday. Its front windows were blown out and remain covered by plywood.

On Thursday, all of the salon's appointments came in except for three older women, including two who lived near the plant. Owner Marcella Klaus said she had been trying to reach them to make sure they were OK and was planning to reach out to their families today, just in case.

“I was surprised about how many people have kept their appointments,” Klaus said. “That I haven’t heard from those three makes me worry.”

At the salon, the women seemed to find comfort in their routine. And Kucera was their queen bee of information amid great uncertainty about the fate of many of their friends and neighbors.

“If anybody in this town knows anything, she does,” Klaus said lovingly, as Kucera updated her friends.

At one point, Kucera just paused and exhaled.

“We’re alive,” she said, looking at the women, who nodded in return. “We’ve got all our babies. Even our cats.”