For West, Texas EMS personnel 'it's tough every day'

A candlelight vigil is planned on the second anniversary of the deadly West explosion that killed 15 and heavily damaged the town

By Bill Hanna
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

WEST, Texas —The second anniversary of the deadly West fertilizer plant explosion won’t be easy for Coil Conaway.

It will stir up unpleasant memories of the April 17, 2013, blast that spared him and his wife, April, but killed others around them. The Conaways — he’s a paramedic and she’s an emergency medical technician — were outside the plant when it exploded but were shielded by the driver’s-side door of their ambulance.

Friday is also the day of a friend’s funeral. Kevin Walters, 52, an EMT who died Tuesday from cancer, was one of the first people Coil Conaway saw after the explosion.

Still in shock, Conaway went with other survivors to West High School, which was used as a makeshift staging area after the explosion. Conaway had no idea that the force of the blast had devastated the West Terrace Apartments and the West Rest Haven nursing home and had damaged hundreds of homes.

“It’s a little rough right now,” Conaway said. Walters is “the guy I ran into after we took people to the high school who told me about the rest of the town.”

City officials are treating the second anniversary as a low-key affair. Instead of a major program with speeches, West will remember the 15 people who died with a candlelight vigil at St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption and will include a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m., the time of the explosion.

A new playground, the idea of Parker Pustejovsky, the son of one of the victims, will be dedicated Saturday.

“It’s time to move on,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

Muska plans to go to Dallas on Saturday for the screening of the documentary The Day West Shook Texas at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, part of the Dallas International Film Festival.

Instead of focusing on the past, Muska said, city officials are looking ahead to summer when the new West Rest Haven nursing home will open.

Robert Payne, an explosion survivor and the president of the West Rest Haven board of directors, said: “It’s going to have all sorts of benefits. We’ll be getting our residents back to West, help our tax base and be one of the largest employers in the city.”

On its way back

Muska said West hasn’t fully rebounded — lots remain vacant and some homes are still being rebuilt — but he believes it will financially recover by the third anniversary.

“We lost $20 million in appraised value after the explosion,” Muska said. “We got back $8 million of that value last year and another $8 million this year. I think by this time next year we’ll actually be ahead of where we were before the explosion.”

Muska views the playground and nursing home as benchmarks that West is on its way back. Another milestone will occur when heavily damaged streets and utilities are repaired in about a year.

In October, the West school district broke ground on a combined high school and middle school after the previous schools had to be demolished. The new campus is expected to be completed in 2016.

Funding for the school has come from various sources.

In February 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the school district two public assistance grants totaling $20.8 million. And in March, West schools received $10.3 million from the Texas Education Agency’s Foundation School Program. The district has also received money from its insurance carrier after a lengthy dispute.

Classes have been held in portable buildings since the explosion.

Lawsuits still active

The number of lawsuits since the explosion has multiplied to about 200 plaintiffs, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Those involved in legal action include relatives of the dead and injured, along with the city, West Rest Haven nursing home and West Terrace Apartments.

Many have sued Adair Chemical Co., the local owners of West Fertilizer Co. Also named as defendants are El Dorado Chemical Co., CF Industries, Thermaclime and International Chemical Co. Those companies either made fertilizer or sold it to West Fertilizer, according to the Tribune-Herald.

Adair Grain has filed a counterclaim against the four fertilizer producers and sellers, making it both a plaintiff and a defendant.

Waco attorney Steve Harrison, who represents many of the plaintiffs, couldn’t be reached for comment because he was in daylong depositions related to the lawsuits.

Donated money disbursed

All $3.6 million donated to the West Long-Term Recovery fund has been distributed to residents. Many of the items that were collected have been distributed to residents or donated to the Salvation Army, Muska said.

“The vast majority was spent on residential construction,” Suzanne Hack, executive director of West Long-Term Recovery, said in an email. “We did not use the $3.6 million to help businesses. As such, there are rental properties that remain unrepaired.”

While the money has been disbursed, not every new home has been completed.

“I currently have 17 construction projects left,” Hawk said. “Each of these projects is in a different phase of construction. One of these will be inspected next week.”

The explosion damaged or destroyed 300 homes. A total of 120 homes were demolished.

So far, 295 building permits have been issued, and there are now 82 new homes and 123 remodels. An additional 81 permits were issued to rebuild sheds, carports, fences and other structures.

Kenneth Maler, 79, and his wife, Leona, 89, have rebuilt near the blast site. They were in their new home before the one-year anniversary and have watched as the neighborhood has slowly built back up with larger homes.

“It’s just been different, totally different,” Kenneth Maler said. “We got some nice houses coming up that make mine look like a shack.”

The Malers plan to attend the candlelight vigil, the playground dedication and an outdoor service Sunday morning held by First Baptist Church of West. After the blast, the church couldn’t hold services at its sanctuary in the blast-damaged north part of town, so it staged an outdoor service. It has now become a tradition.

“We’re Catholic but we’re not going to miss it,” Maler said. “It’s been pretty tough. We lost a lot of good people. I knew them all.”

Even though all the donated money has been spent, Muska knows that mental health issues may linger for many residents. A grief support group is scheduled to hold its next meeting April 23 at St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption.

“We will have counseling available for as long as we need it,” Muska said. “That is one of the things we learned from the Oklahoma City bombing is first responders were asking for help 10 years after the event.”

‘We knew it was bad’

For Conaway, the memories of two years ago remain fresh.

When he pulled up to the fertilizer site about 15 minutes before the explosion, it didn’t look good.

“We knew it was bad,” Conaway said. “You could feel the heat of the fire when we pulled up.”

The only thing that saved Conaway was a faulty hand-held radio.

It wasn’t working, so he was using the ambulance’s radio when the explosion occurred. He was standing by the driver’s-side door facing the fire while his wife was turned away from the plant. When the explosion occurred, the Conaways were knocked to the ground, with debris all around them.

“I think the ambulance played a big part in it,” Conaway said. “The ambulance was totaled. The doors were blown in. The air bags were deployed. The glass was shattered.

“We couldn’t open any of the doors to get to our supplies. We had to climb through the window to get to stuff. We were just standing in the right place at the wrong time. That’s what basically saved us.”

Neither was seriously injured, but Conaway said he has hearing loss and shoulder issues.

Before the blast, the Conaways, who have been living near Riesel on the other side of McLennan County, were planning to move back to West. They have since bought land outside town.

Coil Conaway, a West graduate, began working for the ambulance service when he was 17 and was still a student at West High School. The tightknit group of first responders has become part of his life.

“It’s tough every day, especially when you get closer to the anniversary. But you have to keep pushing forward,” he said. “Life has to go on. We have to honor the guys we did lose by ensuring that everything continues on. It’s something we deal with as a family. None of us are really related here, but we’re all a big family.”

©2015 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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