Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big tragedy in a small town

  They say everything's bigger in Texas. But most things that make it big are small.

  West, Texas, for instance.

  The name confuses. Named after a banker and sodbuster, West is in Central Texas, 25 miles north of Waco, where I spent a long time as a newsman.   

    As everyone knows by now, West is small, 2,800 people. That makes the wound it nurses one of unimaginable scope.

   When I heard of the explosion that did so much damage to West, the first thing I thought of was utterly ironic.

   I thought of proximity.

   The assumption about people who live in "the country" is that they go there to be away from other people, to spread out.

    The tragic irony was that the deaths and destruction attached to the event in West had to do with homes, apartments, two schools and a nursing home being too close to the site of a great explosion.

   Then again, downtown West was seriously damaged as well, and it wasn't that close.

   That happens with a concussion some likened to a nuclear blast, a mushroom cloud visible at 100 miles.

    Back to that matter of closeness: I've observed that it's what makes places special. It's what makes New York New York, Chicago Chicago, Boston Boston.

   Rather than massive and faceless, each is in fact a collection of small towns, shoulder to shoulder, packed into distinct blocks, sectors and boroughs.

    West has considerably more elbow room but the same closeness.

    It is predominated by Czech heritage. It is renowned for its kolaches — cream cheese or fruit or sausage — and for its West Fest celebration each Labor Day, when polka bands and beer-bread sandwiches make 100-plus degrees bearable.

     Now West is known around the country for something else. For tragedy. For loss. For questions.

     Texas is where something of comparable magnitude happened once with the very same combustible substance that has caused so much sorrow in West.

     In 1947 two ships carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer outside the port of Texas City caught fire and exploded, killing 581. How were so many in harm's way?

     The people of West had no idea what dread loomed down the block. It's unclear to what extent, if any, inspection had provided assurance that the property next door — and in place long before anyone moved nearby — was a ticking time bomb.     

      Such questions are for another day. On this day we remark on neighbors acting as neighbors in the truest sense — rushing to a danger scene as volunteer fire fighters, helping fish seniors out of a nursing home's rubble.

     As in Boston on Patriot's Day, out of the worst of scenarios we come to expect the best of people, and they seem to deliver.

     The phoniest of concerns, it seems to me, is about what becomes of West and, dare one say, its reputation as a quiet and peaceable, even blessed town. Its reputation is secure; its blessings, too. It's all in the bonding that often comes with a death in the family, when kin grow closer to make up for the void left by the departed   

     Like many towns its size, West owes its origins to a swatch of railroad track. Without it, and I-35 streaming its way generations later, it would be a vacant patch of blackland prairie.

    But through the years, and the generations, it has more than justified its existence with much that is life.

    In a small town, any loss is a big loss. In this one, the loss is bigger.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:   



No comments: