WEST, Texas - - Before an earth-shaking explosion at a fertilizer plant shattered the town, this community of 2,800 people outside Waco was known as the "Czech Heritage Capital of Texas."
A band of accordion players would often regale nursing home residents with polka-heavy favorites. A Czech dance was scheduled this weekend at the Knights of Columbus Hall. And while most Texans refer to them as pigs in a blanket, folks here call them klobasnikis and make them with spicy or cheese sausages, as well as plain hotdogs.
The accident late Wednesday at the West Fertilizer Co. thrust tiny West into the national spotlight in a way its famous baked goods never could. An unknown number of people were dead and more than 160 hurt.
"They say everybody here knows each other. They mean it," said Suzy Price, a photographer. Her arms were bruised from helping to pull her 91-year-old mother out a nursing home window and through some bushes to safety after the blast.
Founded in 1882, West was a booming railroad town that attracted a disproportionate number of German and Czech immigrants attracted by its fertile farmland, which was perfect for growing wheat, corn and cotton.
The Czech influence remains so strong that among those visiting the devastation Thursday was Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic's ambassador to the U.S.
After returning home, Price watched volunteers, many of them students from the local high school and middle school, pushing other nursing home residents in wheelchairs to the community center, which became an emergency staging area.
"They were walking, and that's five miles," Price said of the volunteers. "They were streaming by our house for hours, late into the night."
Gladys Quilter, co-owner of the Village Shoppe, a dress emporium, said her father arrived at 16 and promptly changed his surname to something easier for Americans to pronounce.
She said the Czech influence is apparent in the local cuisine, including fruit-filled pastries called kolasches. West residents put a special wrinkle on the traditional dessert by making them with cream cheese and chocolate.
"If you want to gain weight, that's good for that," Quilter said.
Police on Thursday were still restricting access to five blocks that were most heavily damaged by the explosion and subsequent fires. The blast also shattered windows a mile away in the town center, a three-block cluster of shops and businesses, including Quilter's.
West Food Market, the Pool Room and Eddy's Saddles and Tack all had facades damaged, and many other businesses remained closed as their owners helped relatives and friends who could not return to their homes or lost them to the explosion.
Joyce Baubin, a retired secretary, was sweeping broken glass off the sidewalk. She described the explosion as "the worst noise I've ever heard."
But Baubin said she didn't know what had happened until her son called from Boston, site of a deadly bombing earlier this week at the finish line of the city's annual marathon, to make sure she was all right.
"They had all that tragedy there, and he's calling to a small town where nothing ever happens," she said. "At least not usually."
Away from the eerie quiet of downtown, the community center was brimming with activity as Red Cross workers comforted victims and offered counseling, temporary housing and food.
Smoke from a barbeque blanketed much of the area outside, and a worker from a home care agency for the elderly flipped hamburgers and hot dogs. Inside, the center was filled to capacity with clothes, diapers, snack mix and other donations. Residents arrived in droves to leave more.
"This community is going to receive a lot of outpouring and love and whatever they need," said Rusty Thomas, a Waco minister who brought water and Gatorade. When he was told of the need for more diapers, socks and baby formula, he drove away to get some.
Megan Miller, a West resident whose cousin was hospitalized after the blast, brought plates and bathroom items. Her two children, ages 5 and 6, each carried one of their stuffed animals. She said one of the toughest tasks was trying to explain what happened to her children. But they seemed to understand.
Maggie, the 6-year-old, dropped off a stuffed elephant because she "wanted a little girl to have a toy elephant."
"I don't really need it anymore," Maggie said.
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