|People take part in a candlelight vigil April 18 at the Church of the Assumption
in West, Texas, to remember those who lost their lives or were injured in
a massive explosion at the area’s fertilizer plant the previous day.
(CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters
On the night of Wednesday, April 17, Grand Knight Ryan Adams of West (Texas) Council 2305 had just arrived at his hotel room in nearby Austin when he received a text message from a relative. It read simply: “The fertilizer plant just blew up.”
Adams’ mind began racing. The small plant was at the heart of his beloved hometown, where hours before he had left his wife and two young children behind for a business trip. Knowing that the plant was located near a sizeable apartment complex and several local businesses, he knew the damage would be devastating.
Days later, Adams and his brother Knights would assume a leading role in the recovery efforts in West. In addition to raising money to support those who had lost their homes, the Knights turned their hall into a distribution center and meeting place. They hosted dozens of disaster response agencies, served meals and stood together as a pillar of strength for the community.
But when he initially heard about the disaster, Adams didn’t know what to think. He hurriedly packed up his bags and headed back to West, not sure what he would find when he got there.
Located about 20 miles north of Waco, Texas, the town of West is home to 2,800 people, many of Czech descent. The prominent features of this quintessential Texas town include the “Czech Stop” and the “KC Hall,” a campus of two buildings that houses the town’s 500-member strong Knights of Columbus council.
West is a Catholic town with a bustling parish community at St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The two cultures Catholic and Czech are intertwined and often meet, with Czech dances and heritage functions at the Knights’ hall.
But all that came to a screeching halt April 17 when a small fire at the West Fertilizer Company unleashed a horrifying explosion that killed at least 15 people. Among them were two members of the Knights of Columbus: Cody Dragoo, the manager of the plant and a member since 2008, and Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary and a second-generation Knight since 2001. Both men were also volunteer firefighters.
The blast injured more than 160 others and destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings. Authorities say the explosion measured a 2.1 on the Richter scale and was heard in towns as far as 45 miles away. Even the K of C hall, located a mile away from the blast site, sustained some damage.
When Adams returned from Austin, he found a community in shock.
“We have some friends [whose homes were evacuated that night],” Adams said, “so they came over and stayed with us. We stayed up until about 2:30 in the morning just watching the news coverage.”
It was hard to swallow. But in those first hours, when Adams and his wife welcomed another family into their home, West’s unbreakable sense of community began to shine through.
Within hours of the tragedy, the Supreme Council sent $10,000 in emergency relief funds to Council 2305. The Texas State Council also committed $10,000 for future use.
Meanwhile, Knights in West got straight to work. In less than 48 hours, they opened their hall to the people of West and hosted a hamburger supper, offering neighbors and friends a chance to grieve and be together.
On Saturday morning, a busload of Knights from nearby Baylor University, North Texas University and the University of Dallas arrived in West to help sort and organize the donations that were pouring in to a collection point at the town fairgrounds. Meanwhile, the people of West turned to God in prayer, and many proudly wore t-shirts that had “God Bless West” emblazoned across the front.
Town residents bow their heads in prayer during an April
21 outdoor prayer service four days after the deadly explosion.
(CNS photo/Tim Sharp, Reuters
That Sunday, as nearly 1,000 persons filled the Church of the Assumption for a Mass celebrated by Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, more than 100 Knights from across the state served in a Fourth Degree honor guard.
“There are many people who are hurting,” Bishop Vásquez said in his homily. “There are many people who are suffering. As a consequence, you and I have gathered to pray. We pray because we are confident, because we trust God, because we believe his word is true.”
Noting that their gathering was taking place on Good Shepherd Sunday, Bishop Vásquez said, “Let the Lord carry you on his shoulders. Let the Lord sustain you in this tragic and terrible time.”
After Mass ended, more than 500 people traveled to the K of C hall for a community luncheon. During the event, Grand Knight Adams and Treasurer Mike Lednicky announced to those in attendance that the Knights would be distributing emergency funds to those who needed it.
The council distributed several thousand dollars that day, since many people had lost their homes and everything they owned.
“The only clothes they had were clothes on their back,” Adams said.
Remembering those who had lost their lives, the community found the motivation to carry on and rebuild.
“We’ve got to rebuild for the guys we’ve lost,” Lednicky said. “Because that’s what they would have done. Every single one of them would have been here today helping people.”
REBUILDING THE COMMUNITY
Due to its central location, the Knights of Columbus hall became vital to relief efforts. The Red Cross, several major insurance companies, and a number of other agencies, organizations and ministries joined together at the council hall to provide a wide variety of services to those in need, including food and other supplies, spiritual guidance, mental health assistance, insurance aid, and legal consultation. The hall also served as a meeting place after the funerals of the fallen, with the council donating both the space and the food for luncheons after services.
As the dust settled in West and the initial recovery began, the scope of the damage became clear. Once-green fields were littered with black ash and debris; houses were gutted down to the studs by the force of the blast; and cars and trucks lay in mangled ruins.
“We’re going to need help rebuilding,” Lednicky said. “The coming weeks and months are going to be a big construction project.”
The Knights are committed to helping. Knights everywhere have joined the effort and, through a website set up by the Supreme Council, have raised a total of more than $175,000 in donations. Council 2305 has been working in conjunction with the Supreme Council and local authorities to determine how best to distribute the relief funds. Whether it’s donations to schools, assistance rebuilding, emergency expenses or anything in between, the Knights are working alongside other charitable organizations to maximize the effect of the charitable giving.
“The last few days, I’ve seen some of the most amazing things in my life from this tragedy,” said Adams, who added that even the families of victims were helping in any way they could. He noted that, despite dozens of evacuated homes, shelters were mostly empty because people were staying with family and friends.
“We take care of each other around here,” Adams continued. “And that’s what this community is about.”
Like any other town, West had its minor divisions and petty differences. But in the wake of this terrible tragedy, as the final chapter waits to be written, a spirit of solidarity remains.
“Today, we’re West,” Adams said. “We’re all one. This is something that won’t be forgotten any time soon. The spirit in this town is strong, and we’re going to come back as strong as we can be, as one community.”
MATTHEW ST. JOHN is communications project coordinator with the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council and past grand knight of Saint Anselm College Council 4875 in Manchester, N.H.