MCLENNAN COUNTY, Texas - It has been five years since the City of West was devastated by an explosion at a fertilizer plant.
Fifteen people died in the blast, 12 of them first responders. About 200 more were injured and 120 homes were damaged beyond repair.
Now, five years later, West has almost fully recovered.
In the small Texas town of just 2,800 people, kolaches are king and faith is a way of life.
“It's essential. Hope, faith, love, love for your neighbor, those are very essential things for this community,” said West volunteer firefighter Robert Payne.
That faith was tested on April 17, 2013.
Payne was helping his team fight the flames at the West Fertilizer plant. Just ten minutes after they arrived on scene, ammonium nitrate stored inside of the building ignited, causing an explosion equivalent to 20,000 pounds of TNT.
“I was blown out of my boots. I was blown into a polyurethane tank that was many yards away and lying underneath that,” said Payne.
Mayor Tommy Muska, also a volunteer firefighter at the time, was on his way to help. He was still about a block and a half away when he heard the blast.
“A few more minutes I may not have been here. It knocked me back about six feet, so it was a huge explosion, something that I'll never forget,” Muska said.
12 other first responders were not as lucky.
“You know everybody contributes a lot, but these were special guys that really were there all the time, 24 hours a day, anytime they could, so just special, special men,” said Payne.
There were also three civilians killed.
“It happened very, very quickly and, unfortunately, we lost some really, really good people that day,” Muska said.
Payne was one of the more than 200 people injured in the explosion. He spent 48 hours in intensive care and another 12 days in the hospital before he even saw the damage.
“It's not something you can comprehend until you see it, even then you can't comprehend what people were going through those two weeks I was in the hospital,” Payne said.
More than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including an apartment building, nursing home, and nearby schools.
“It felt like we were walking through a science fiction movie because everything we knew was either gone or different,” said Pastor John Crowder of the First Baptist Church of West.
In the months following the explosion, people in west relied on one another to help them through.
“We want people to know that this is a town that persevered through hard times and was able to get back on our feet very quickly and look forward,” Payne said.
The State legislature quickly approved $8 million to help rebuild the town and thousands of volunteers showed up ready to work.
“Scores of people from all over the country came down here in groups to pick up rocks out of the street and to do menial tasks that we needed done,” said Muska.
Mayor Muska said it wasn't long before the fire department was up and running again.
“We had people lined up wanting to be on the fire department after that when we advised people we were taking applications, so it wasn't more than six months till we had pretty much a full department back,” Muska said.
Even Payne chose to put his uniform back on.
“It's just a small town thing. You just want to help out your community, want to help out your neighbors and just do what you can to contribute,” said Payne.
Within a couple of years damaged homes were demolished and rebuilding had begun.
“I committed myself to this city after the explosion that I wanted to get it back,” Muska said.
Muska also worked on safeguards for other communities. He helped get laws passed regulating how ammonium nitrate is labeled and stored.
“To store it correctly is a huge step in the right direction and that is in a noncombustible facility,” said Muska.
“We've come such a long way in five years that I will put this recovery up against any recovery in the United States of America, as far as what we've accomplished, what these citizens have accomplished,” Muska said.
About 110 out of the 120 homes destroyed have been rebuilt. A new park, school, EMS facility and nursing home have since opened for business.
Still, not a day goes by that people here don't think about the 15 lives lost.
“We'll never forget them. We always want to honor them in everything we do. They mean a lot to us,” Payne said.
Soon the community will have a place to go to remember them. A memorial sits just 50 feet from the site of the explosion. When finished, it will feature a plaque for every person killed, a fountain, an eternal flame and a timeline of their last 22 minutes.
“It tells the story and it remembers those who died that night, but it does so in a peaceful and hopeful way,” said Crowder.
Today, the community hopes west will be known as the place neighbors stood together.
“I hope that folks will come through West and grab a kolache on the highway, but don't stop there. Come on in and see the new nursing home, see the new middle school, high school, see the new homes. Come see what it is today. You cannot spend 15 minutes in West without experiencing the hope of a bright future,” Crowder said.