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Remembering the Victims and Community of West, Texas

Today —April 17, 2017 — marks the fourth anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion which rocked the city of West, Texas.  Fifteen people — including 12 first responders — lost their lives and more than 200 were injured.  The toll on the city was devastating as the blast damaged buildings for blocks in every direction, including more than 150 homes, a 50-unit apartment complex, West Rest Haven senior living facility, West Emergency Medical Service headquarters, West Fraternal Auditorium, Lone Star Hall, West Middle School and West High School.

In the aftermath, West, Texas became the focus of nationwide media attention.  While the emphasis was on coverage related to the explosion and the devastation in its wake, feature segments called attention to the city’s Czech cultural heritage and the depths to which it defines the community of just under 3,000 residents.  Indeed, West has been recognized as the “Czech Heritage Capital of Texas” and “home of the official Kolache of the Texas Legislature!”

The then Ambassador of the Czech Republic, Ambassador Petr Gandalovič, travelled to West immediately after the explosion to personally express his condolences to those affected by the blast. Together with Texas Governor Rick Perry he was able to visit the most gravely impacted area of the town.  During his visit, the Ambassador also met with West Mayor Tommy Muska and the members of the local Czech-American community to discuss specific forms of assistance that the Czech Republic could provide to the town. 

On a follow-up visit to West, Ambassador Gandalovič presented West Sokol with a donation of four million Czech Crowns on behalf of the people of the Czech Republic to help facilitate the construction of the West Sokol Gymnasium.  Correspondingly, the Washington-based American Friends of the Czech Republic provided funding and organizational support in seeing the project through to its completion in 2015.  Today, West Sokol is stronger than ever with approximately 200 members — half of which are children.  West Sokol will be hosting the Southern District Sokol Slet at their gymnasium on June 9 and 10.

One of the highlights of the 2015 Westfest Celebration held over Labor Day weekend was the fanfare related to the signing of the proclamation declaring the city of Kunovice in the Czech Republic as a Sister City to West, Texas.  This, too, was a relationship that grew out of the bridge built between the CIty of West and the Czech Republic.  In May 2016, West residents visited Kunovice for the city’s biannual Ride of the Kings festival. 

Signs of devastation are still evident near the blast site; however, the city has truly experienced a rebirth in new construction and spirit over the past four years.  Drive around town and you’ll see neighborhoods that had been devastated by the explosion graced by dozens of beautiful new homes.  Even the streets and curbing are new due to the fact that many of underground water and gas lines had to be replaced.  A 10,000-square-foot Emergency Medical Service headquarters stands where the old building stood before the disaster.  Bigger and better, the emergency medical headquarters houses crew members, ambulances and equipment, and provides room for training.  The History of West Museum — opened two years ago — tells the colorful — even inspirational — story of this vibrant community.  The West Rest Haven senior living facility has also been rebuilt, providing 75,000 spacious square-feet of comfortable living space for its 127 residents.

West Middle School and West High School, which were both destroyed in 2013, reopened together last fall in a new state-of-the-art $50 million facility.

In February, the West City Council reviewed plans for a memorial to the victims of the West Fertilizer plant explosion.  The renderings show a circular structure made of concrete and rock with a water feature in the middle which will include an eternal flame in the middle.  The design also includes a description wall, several benches, and individual stations for each person killed, ten of which will feature metal helmets representing each firefighter who died.

A memorial service will be held at St Mary's Catholic Church of the Assumption at 7:30 p.m. on April 17.  The moment of the explosion will be marked by a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m. CST. 

Texas has many communities like West with deep Czech roots and a large population of Americans of Czech descent — approximately 1 million Texans of Czech descent by some counts.  The state presents an increasingly important cultural and economic gateway between the Czech Republic and the United States of America. 

The Embassy of the Czech Republic thanks to Brian Vanicek, Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic to Texas, for these words of remembrance.