WEST, Texas — One year ago on April 17, five-year-old Parker Pustejovsky lost his father in the fertilizer plant explosion that wrecked the small Texas town of West. Joey Pustejovsky was one of 10 first responders to die trying to put out the fire that precipitated the blast. It wasn’t long before young Parker declared he would rebuild the city park, stripped bare by the explosion—and he’d do it by selling hot dogs.
Word of Parker’s plan spread quickly in the tight-knit Czech town, known for its famous kolache bakery on Interstate 35 between Austin and Dallas. His grandparents and late father’s friends helped him create Parker’s Park Project and plan the hot dog sale that would raise $83,000 in the course of just a few hours on a July afternoon. Last Saturday, Parker’s Park Project unveiled the preliminary design for the playground and held a silent auction, run by the cast of A&E’s Storage Wars: Texas.
Parker’s grandparents never thought they would raise that much money the first time around, but the real surprise was in the figure itself. Their son Joey, Parker’s father, had been born on August 3, 1983, weighing 8 lbs. and 3 oz. In a deeply religious town that residents insist was touched by God on the night of the explosion—the three schools destroyed in the blast were empty, and only two people died inside buildings, despite the fact that hundreds were either totally obliterated or severely damaged—everyone was sure Joey was there, holding his son’s hand as the little boy traded hot dogs for $2,000 Visa gift cards and $100 bills.
They felt the same way last weekend, when the final count for the fundraiser came in at $83,315.
The park is the latest testament to West’s urgent need to bounce back and its refusal to be defined by the explosion. Through sheer force of will, the town is recuperating from devastating loss at a remarkable rate, not least because of its resilient population’s unyielding sense of community and self-reliance.
The blast, which registered as a small earthquake and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep in place of the plant, damaged buildings miles away.
“They’ve worked very, very hard and have gone through the darkest part of this explosion and now they’re coming out on the other side,” says West Mayor Tommy Muska. “Some of them are coming out faster than others but we’re all going to get through this together.”
The town’s strong ethos of self-reliance was never more evident than in the aftermath of the blast. When charity organizations set up temporary shelters for West residents and created a fund to help with expenses, the shelters went largely unused and the money untouched as people took in displaced family and friends.
The explosion left the north part of town without electricity, gas, and sewage; city staff—many of whom had just lost cars and possessions—immediately went to work on reinstating those essentials. Since then, they’ve developed plans for restoring the streets, revamping a vital well, and starting other infrastructure projects that are moving forward now that federal funding has been secured.
“They’ve got a stubborn mayor that loses his temper when things slow down,” says Muska, who also lost his home in the blast. “I don’t have much patience, but maybe that’s a good thing because things have got to get done.”
The blast, which registered as a small earthquake and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep in place of the plant, damaged buildings miles away. Seventy-three homes had to be demolished and completely rebuilt, and another 170 were partially restored. Families have since left trailers and friends’ homes to move back into the restored houses and about 25 of the rebuilt homes, but most of the rebuilds are still under construction.
Three of four schools in West Independent School District were shuttered after the blast, which crushed and ignited the intermediate school and irreparably damaged the middle and high schools. Nearly 800 students squeezed into the elementary school and into a mothballed building in a nearby school district while West ISD built a temporary campus.
In July, the school district will break ground on a secondary complex that will house the middle and high schools, while the elementary school is being expanded to accommodate the intermediate students. West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford says they expect to complete the schools by December 2015.
“There are little pockets of success everywhere,” Crawford says. “I think [they] are going to add up as a whole and five or 10 years from now West is going to be able to pat itself on the back and be a fine example of how a community was able to pick itself up off the ground and dust itself off.”
As the town rebuilds, the city council is doing what it can to prevent another disaster from happening again. Muska says the Council is considering creating a city fire code. It recently created a residential building fire code and is working on a commercial fire code that would govern buildings like the fertilizer plant. The plant was outside city limits, however, so the Council is looking at what it can do to regulate structures in its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
State and federal bodies have moved at a comparatively glacial speed, with no significant changes made to ammonium nitrate regulation yet. The Texas Congress doesn’t seem any closer to creating a statewide fire code and increased regulation is, as always, a tough sell in this state.
Little has changed in terms of the investigation into what caused the fire. The State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still running tests and chasing leads, and ATF spokesperson Nicole Strong says it’s altogether possible the cause will never be identified. The agencies have yet to rule out three causes: the battery of a golf cart that was parked inside the plant, the plant’s electrical system, and a criminal act—the three options that have been on the table since early last year.
In West, change is happening more quickly than ever. But for 5-year-old Parker, things aren’t moving fast enough. Every time they drive by the park, he asks his Peepaw why it isn’t built yet. His grandfather feels the same way and anxiously awaits City Council’s rubber stamp so they can start construction. When that happens and the semi-trucks roll into town carrying jungle gyms ready to be installed, the people of West will bring their tools out and build the park together—because that’s just the kind of town West is.