In wake of explosion, Texas town's foundation is unbroken

Lifelong West, Texas, residents Ervin Cinek, 84, and his nephew Al Cinek, 64. (Adrienne LaFrance/Digital First Media)

(April 22, 2013) WEST, Texas - Boys grow up to do what their grandfathers did in this old saloon town in Central Texas. They farm the black soil for corn and radishes. They play dominos at the same bar off of Main Street. They amble past the theater that offered vaudeville shows before motion pictures came around.

So when the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and leveling blocks, the steady predictability of this sleepy town went with it. Officials are investigating how a fire that caused the blast began.

The explosion was so massive that it shattered windows more than a mile away, and registered as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Residents say the force of the explosion deployed car airbags three-quarters of a mile from the plant.

In the aftermath of any disaster, death tolls are tallied while blessings are counted. The people of West say it's a miracle that at least 130 people in the now-destroyed West Rest Haven nursing home made it out alive. There have been no reports that anyone in the home died as a result of the explosion.

Ervin Cinek, 84, was sleeping in his bed in the home when the ceiling began to fall in huge pieces.

'Everything got covered up with insulation and all that ceiling fell down on me,' Cinek said. 'I was scared. I didn't think I was ever going to make it out of there.'

He climbed out of bed, leaving behind all of his belongings - right down to his false teeth - and helped another patient into a wheelchair.

'It had a crooked wheel on it,' he said. 'I had a struggle getting him out of there. We made it, somehow. It just caved in.'

Cinek has seen West through tough times. He was born here in 1928 and grew up during the depression.

'I'm from the old time,' he said. 'You had to struggle. I had to help my dad make a living. I made it all right. Hard work. I used to be a farmer - cattle and grain and cotton. It was the depression and money was hard to find.'

But childhood in West delighted him, too.

'It was a long time ago,' Cinek said. 'You could have a real good time on 50 cents. Everything's good about West. It's real nice. I love it here.'

In the 1930s, Cinek and the other boys in town would gather near the highway to watch the automobiles rumble by. There was a gazebo near the train tracks where they liked to play. These days, pick-up trucks and Harley-Davidsons rule the roads.

The town is home to about 2,800 people, and just about every one of them has a connection agriculture. Others work in gas stations and bars. Many are veterans.

Having lost everything in the blast, Cinek is now staying with a nephew, 64-year-old Navy veteran Al Cinek. They're sharing Al's bed, an arrangement that makes them both laugh.

On Friday the Cineks stood near the center of town, where bleached brick buildings with Old West-style rooftops cut rectangles into the blue sky.

They fell quiet as a tow truck carrying a charred-black sedan, presumably burned in the explosion, rounded the corner. Al Cinek broke the silence when he recognized someone down the street, calling out, 'glad to see you're safe!'

He said he's still processing what happened.

'It hasn't hit me yet,' Al Cinek said. 'The people who are dead, the firefighters, I knew most of them personally. One of them, Buck - I got a text message that says, 'Buck is in heaven.' '

That everyone knows one another in West is part of what makes this disaster so gut-wrenching, but the closeness of the community also is helping it cope.

In the days after the explosion, West residents raced to one another's sides. The Best Western Czech Inn across the highway became a gathering point, its conference rooms filled with donations of clothing, canned goods, water, toys and dog food. Donations also poured into the drug stores and hardware shops along Main Street.

The explosion was all anyone talked about in local bars Friday night, where people drank cans of Bud Light in koozies stamped with sayings like 'paddle faster, I hear banjos.'

A woman at Mynar's bar - an institution that's been around, first as a general store, since the 19th century - bought a round of beer for everyone. Mynar's has deer and elk heads mounted on the walls with black and beige bras hanging from their antlers. A local bail bondsman advertises his services on the coasters.

Al Cinek runs another legendary watering hole, Tokio Store, which has been around for 156 years. The uneven wood floor has deteriorated so much over the years that it's being held together in some places with old license plates. It's the kind of place where people show up knowing who will already be there. That's true for most of the joints in West.

Lifelong West resident Betty Orler, 49, found herself stopping in the thrift shops and bakeries just to see that her friends had survived.

'I know that the ladies always go to the Village Bakery on Fridays,' Orler said. 'So I came to town and looking for Betty Tucker.

'I saw her on TV. I knew she was OK. But I had to touch her. And sure enough, there she sat.'

To be from West, she says, is to love this town.

'That's it. No matter where you go or how far away you are,' Orler said. 'No matter where you're at. This is your home.'

Once a railroad town and now a truck stop along Interstate 35, West is surrounded by flat panels of yellow-green fields dotted with muscly brown cows. There's a cattle auction every Thursday in town. And, in true small town fashion, many people still don't lock their doors at night.

The baby boomers remember going to school with shotguns and pistols in their cars so they could shoot at old cans on the street during lunchtime. Today, teenagers are more focused on sports like basketball and football. But the people in West still fish and hunt.

'We do rabbit hunting, duck hunting, frog hunting, hog hunting, deer hunting, turkey hunting, things like that,' said Edward Havel.

Havel owns Czech Point Collectibles and Antiques, a cluttered shop filled with curiosities like glass fishing buoys, worn cowboy boots, Beatles trading cards and plastic swizzle sticks. The air in his shop, like most places in West, is tinged with the smell of Marlboros.

To outsiders, West is probably best known for its annual Westfest parade and festival and its strong Czech heritage. Out-of-towners pull over to visit the Czech Stop convenience store and stock up on kolaches, doughy Czech pastries that can be filled with sausage and cheese or fresh blueberries, cherries, and other fruit.

Joe Mashek, West's former county commissioner, says his great grandfather, Vaclav Mashek, became the first Czech person to come to the town around 1872, when he purchased land from Thomas West, the man for whom the town is named.

'My great grandfather kept hearing about land over in Central Texas that had really good, black, farmland dirt,' Mashek said. 'He got his wagon and mules and came to West. He bought the farm real close, right there where the fertilizer plant is.'

Generations of Masheks were raised there. The house where Joe Mashek grew up - he still owns it but rents it out - was about 400 yards from the fertilizer plant. He still doesn't know how bad the damage is.

'It's going to be devastating for a lot of people, but we'll get through this,' Mashek said. 'I've lost some friends, friends I've known since they were little people. Like everybody, I was born and raised here. I don't know what it is about West. It's just different in West. I guess because it's ours.'

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