downtown of West, Texas

The Tiny Texas Town Shook by a Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Five Years Later

April 17th, 2013 began just like any other day in the tiny town of West, located just north of Waco. In this tight-knit community of under 3000, the adults went to work, kids went to school, and it was life as usual in a small Texas town.

West, Texas welcome sign

However, before the day ended, life as residents knew it would drastically change. At 7:50PM, the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded after a whole stock of ammonium nitrate caught on fire. Two schools, a nursing home, and numerous neighborhoods nearby sustained extensive damage. With 15 people killed and another 200 injured, the West tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history.

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An aerial view of the explosion site a few days after the event. (Photo by Shane.torgerson / CC BY-SA 3.0)
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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a memorial service for the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion at Baylor University in Waco on April 25, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After an extensive investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded that the incident had been an act of arson. To this day, there have been no strong leads. But whatever happened to this tiny community, stricken with grief and overwhelmed by loss? I wanted to find out, so I paid a visit to West over Labor Day weekend to see how much recovery had been done in the five years following the disaster.

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Downtown West.

Once inside the city limits, it was only a few minutes before I reached the former plant site, where the explosion originated. What was an area flooded with first responders and later investigative personnel now sat there as a vacant lot.

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The former grounds of the West Fertilizer Company.

Talking with West Mayor Tommy Muska, he spoke very highly of the immediate recovery effort. “After the explosions, over 140 charitable organizations from all over the country came to lend a hand. From the Salvation Army to various churches, it was truly a faith-based recovery process.”

Not far away from the explosion site was the new combined middle and high school. Before the explosion, they were two separate campuses, with the middle school located right behind the plant and the high school just down the road. Both buildings suffered severe damage, and were rebuilt as one facility on the site of the high school. Classes were held at a temporary location until the new campus opened in 2016.

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The new West Middle/High School, opened in 2016.

The new school looked very nice, and was a gleaming example to the world that West would only let a tragedy like this make them stronger. Another sign of this town’s comeback were the many new homes seen in the neighborhoods lining the plant. Many of them were damaged beyond repair, and had to be razed. The new homes taking their place looked nice, and had I not known they were in West, I’d have thought this was a new development in Frisco or something!

west, texas new homes

west, texas new homes

Although recovery has come a long way, reminders of that tragic day can still be found. Just down the road from the plant site, I saw this now-abandoned duplex. Damaged in the explosion, the brick held but the windows and doors didn’t make it.

West, Texas abandoned duplex

Beyond physical damage, Mayor Muska said that post-traumatic stress disorder is still an issue for many residents. The community has stepped in to help heal emotional wounds as well, with Baylor University providing counseling services and other guidance to residents.

Another reminder of this incident came in the form of something much more positive – a park containing a memorial, commemorating the lives lost and providing a peaceful place for all. Mayor Muska said the memorial is expected to be dedicated next year, on the anniversary of the explosion.

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This park and memorial, located just behind the plant, will remember those killed in the explosion.

As I left West, I could feel the spirit of the community, and how strong they were to pull through this disaster and prevail. Despite all that happened, Mayor Muska said that today the local economy was healthy, and that the residents are very blessed. I could feel the same resolve while visiting Joplin, Missouri as well, the site of an EF5 tornado in 2011. As Americans, we may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day, everyone coming together to overcome tragedy is what makes our country so great.

West, TX Water Tower

One Hour in Brownwood: Home of the Yellowjackets

Brownwood and Brown County: a place in Texas that most people haven’t even heard of, let alone know its location. As one of the nineteen counties in the west-central region of the state, I made the trip there last Saturday to see some of the local sights, as well as to cross one more county off the map! I first heard about here while researching possible destinations to fly to. Having checked out many of the neighboring cities and counties, such as Eastland and Comanche, seeing Brownwood on the map made me curious to know what they had out there.

Located about 160 miles to the southwest of Dallas, Brownwood is a surprisingly big city relative to the other cities in the area. The county seat of Brown County, it boasts a population of over 19,000 people. The city was originally located east of its present position, however various disputes forced its inhabitants to uproot and find a new location to call home. That’s when a man named Greenleaf Fisk stepped in, and in 1884 donated 60 acres in the spot where Brownwood stands today. During World War II, the city saw a lot of activity, as one of the U.S. Army training camps(Camp Bowie) was located here. Over 80,000 soldiers passed thru here, in one of the largest training camps of its time in Texas.

Departing early in the morning, my friend Tom and I landed at the Brownwood Regional Airport after about one hour in the air. Upon securing the airplane, we signed the paperwork for the airport courtesy car, and off we went into town. One wrench that got thrown in our plans when I called the airport the day before: They wanted their car back in an hour, so we knew we could not take too long at any one place.

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The plane at the Brownwood Regional Airport. 

The first place we decided to go see was Howard Payne University, a private four-year Baptist university. Founded in 1889, it has a student population of only 1200. It was named after Edward Howard Payne, who’s brother-in-law donated the initial sum of money to get the university started. As part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, this school offers numerous degrees in their Christian Studies department, such as Biblical Languages and Practical Theology. For those desiring a non-theological degree, HPU has degrees in many other fields, from Business to Theatre.

After close to 10 minutes of driving, we arrived at Howard Payne. We first drove around campus, getting a global view of the school and determining where we were going to park. We decided to park by the library, and explore the school on foot. Since we were so close to the library, that was the first building we looked at.

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The library of Howard Payne University, home of the yellowjackets!

It was closed that day, but looking in, it had to be one of the smallest college libraries I have seen to date. It had a coffee bar, copier, and a sofa in its lobby. The atmosphere looked relaxing and peaceful.

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That library sure is small. I would have loved to go in and see the extent of their collections. 

From there, we walked into the heart of the school. There weren’t any students to be seen that day – however, we did come across a few people heading to the chapel.

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Architecturally speaking, the buildings at this school were pretty grand. It kind of reminded me of the buildings at Ole Miss.

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I liked the architecture of their buildings. 

We then came upon their bell tower. This landmark had a very welcoming feeling to it, and marked the center of the campus pretty well. Stone benches made it a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or even catch a brief nap (just not in this 100-degree weather).

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While standing in the bell tower, I saw a commemoration piece on the floor referencing their old main building, with the end year being 1984. Upon doing some research, I discovered that it burned to the ground during finals week of that year.

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As I walked around the bell tower area, I came upon something super interesting. There were golf mats all around the surrounding lawn, complete with instructions and all!

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At first, I was like..” what is this?”

I initially thought this was just something set up by the school for the students to do in their off time, and I later found out I wasn’t too far off. One of my Facebook friends, Melissa, who is an alumna of Howard Payne, gave me the story behind it. This activity was none other than Jacket Golf, named after the school’s mascot – the yellowjackets.

Since there wasn’t much of anything to do in Brownwood in terms of recreation outside of school sporting events, the students themselves decided to create an activity that could be done on campus. An unofficial game of golf was developed- with the campus serving as the course. As a student, memory would tell you where to stand and the point to aim for. If you didn’t remember, surely one of your friends did. As folks graduated and moved on, word-of-mouth kept the game alive over the years. At last, the school decided to make this tradition official. Mats were set up, with instructions telling people where to stand and the direction to aim at!

The sign below read: Hole 2 – “My All” Marker. “Start at Old Main Tower and aim for “My All” marker. ”

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This was for sure one of the most unique outdoor features I have seen to date on a college campus. Jacket Golf is such a part of Howard Payne tradition, that Melissa jokingly said that one hasn’t gotten the true experience of HPU if they haven’t partaken in a game!

After a few more minutes of standing there trying to figure out where the “My All” marker was, Tom and I decided it was time to head off to our next and last stop – downtown. On the short drive there, we passed by a mid-sized indoor stadium. We decided to briefly drive around to see it more. It was none other than the Brownwood Coliseum. A 4,000 seat indoor stadium, it is used by the Howard Payne basketball and volleyball teams.

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The Brownwood Coliseum.

Upon entering downtown, we first drove around to see what was worth getting out of our air-conditioned car for. The downtown area of Brownwood was larger than I originally thought. In fact, the whole city was larger and busier than I anticipated. I didn’t look at the population when planning this trip, and thus thought it would be on the same scale as Comanche or Marlin, which are both also county seats. Barely any businesses were open, much like I expected. Unfortunately, the downtown areas of many of these places just aren’t as vibrant as they were back in the day.

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The Brown County Museum of History, located on the edge of downtown. We would have gone if we had more time. 

We came across this abandoned, fairly big 12 story building, which caught my attention.  It looked like a hotel at one point.

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It would be awesome if I could get permission from the owners to explore this building! 

We parked and walked around this structure. I could tell that there used to be shops on the first floor. Looking up, there were tons of windows open, exposing whatever was inside to the elements. As usual, I wanted to know what purpose the building served back in its heyday. After some research, I found out it indeed was a hotel – the Hotel Brownwood. Opening in 1930, it was very profitable and the destination to go to when in town. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, as business began to decline in the 60s. Eventually, the hotel was converted to dormitories for Howard Payne students, and served in that role for just under twenty years. After that, it has sat vacant to this day.

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Everything was boarded up. 

By this point, it was time to get going so that we would stay on schedule. After making a stop for lunch at Sonic, it was back to the airport. Upon returning our crew car, we checked out a static display of two fighter jets – an F-111 and F-4, sitting outside the terminal!

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A pretty cool display to welcome you to the airport. 

Both supersonic aircraft, these fighters served in combat, including the Vietnam War. The F-111 featured variable sweep wings and terrain-following radar, which allowed this monster to fly super close to the ground in order to avoid detection by enemy radar. The F-4 was equipped to carry a variety of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, and different bombs. These planes were here as part of a memorial to an Air Force Colonel that damaged an impressive number of Axis aircraft during World War II.

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The (empty) engine pod on the F-111.

Heading back to the terminal, I got the fuel tab paid, and also looked around. It was well-equipped, with a flight planning room, restrooms, and sofas to relax.

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The waiting area of the main terminal. Perfect for cooling off before departing!

Before leaving, we also went inside the main hangar on the field, which was pretty big considering the size of the city. According to the airport attendant, it was built in the 40s.

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A very sizeable hangar.
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Look at that warning sign telling you to be careful and not hit your fingers, located on the hangar doors.  It just smells like vintage. 

Inside, I got to see a FedEx Feeder Cessna Caravan. Flown by another air cargo company under a contract with FedEx, this plane is used to deliver packages to small towns around the area. UPS also services this airport, although their plane had already left.

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Ever wonder how overnight packages make it to small towns like these? There’s your answer. 

With all that we saw on this successful trip, we were ready for the flight back. After getting the pre-flight inspection done, we flew back home. With a tail-wind, we made good time and landed in just under an hour. This had been a pretty fun excursion, and now Brown County was officially crossed off the list of Texas counties still yet to be seen. On all of my trips, I try to find at least one thing unique to the place I’m visiting – Jacket Golf at Howard Payne got that box checked off this time around!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting the Heart of Texas

This past Saturday, I did a cross-country flight to go see another Texas county. We have been experiencing quite a bit of crazy spring weather over the past few weeks, so it was nice to have a day of good flying conditions. I chose to visit a place that has been on my Texas list for a while now- the city of Brady, located about 80 miles to the east of San Angelo. Brady isn’t just any ole’ city in Texas- it is the city that is closest to the geographical center of the state! With a population of just under 5500 people, “The Heart of Texas” was a destination that I definitely wanted to explore.

After a one and a half hour flight, my buddy Tom and I touched down at the Brady Curtis Field Municipal Airport. Upon securing the airplane, we hopped in the crew car and headed off to town!

The first place we checked out after lunch at Sonic was the McCulloch County Courthouse. Like most small towns, the courthouse was located in the center of the town square. Texas has some of the most interesting and elegant courthouse designs – and this was certainly no exception!

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The McCulloch County Courthouse.

The design was somewhat similar to the Parker County Courthouse in Weatherford, yet had a taste of the one in Lampasas County, in Lampasas. Built in 1899, this was the second courthouse to serve McCulloch County, which encompasses over 1000 square miles. This courthouse was also added to the National Register of Historic Places back in 1977 – a distinction well deserved given the age of the building and the role it played in the history of the county.

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Here’s something you don’t see everyday! A World War II era howitzer in very good condition just sitting here, basking in the Texas sun.

On the grounds of the courthouse was a granite marker bringing light to Brady’s claim to fame – it being “The Heart of Texas”. While the actual geographical center of the state is about 20 miles to the northwest, Brady is the closest city to there. Here is where I got my stereotypical tourist photo taken!

After getting done exploring the courthouse, Tom and I walked around the town square. Compared to some of the other small towns I’ve been to, Brady seems to have a slightly bigger downtown area than most.

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Like most small towns, not too much was going on and not many people were seen.

Although most of the businesses were closed, there was one antique shop that was open. This place, D&J’s Good Ole Days, was actually listed on TripAdvisor when I did my planning for this excursion. I didn’t expect it to be open, but since it was, we waltzed on in to see what they had to offer.

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Out of all the small town antique shops I’ve been to, this one is the coolest by far. It spans the length of three storefronts, and is packed to the gills with trinkets and artifacts from mainly the 20th century. To look at all these objects and realize that each and every one of them has a story behind it is nothing short of incredible.

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One could literally spend hours and hours in here just digging for treasures.
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Everything from old furniture to deer heads can be found at this place.

They even had a section for vintage oil bottles..who would have thought that would be a collector’s item? I’m sure the stuff inside was of much better quality than what is sold now. Hell, just the packaging itself looks cool.

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I would have hung around this place for a bit longer, but it was about time to start heading back to the airport. Departing downtown, we passed by the city hall. Didn’t get a photo, but it was bigger than I initially thought. Usually the city hall of these small towns are nothing more than a tiny building, but this one was quite sizeable.

Once back at the airport, we realized that there was no self-serve fuel pump to refuel the plane prior to departure, and that the airport attendant had gone home for the day! The door to a big hangar housing a DC-3 airliner was open though, and I tracked down a guy and his pre-teen son working inside who helped me contact someone to come out here.

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No one else was seen at the airport, but we managed to find two folks inside working on a super cool plane.

While waiting, they were gracious enough to let Tom and I climb on board and check the plane out! The DC-3 isn’t just any airliner – it was the plane that revolutionized air travel back in the 1930s. I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to check out such an interesting piece of aviation history.

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Trying to get my glamorous cockpit window shot.
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The DC-3 has worn many hats through the years.

A twin-engined tailwheel bird, it was capable of carrying anywhere from 21-32 passengers. This particular model was being restored after having sat here on the field for a few years.

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A look into the glory days of commercial air travel.

The cockpit contained a mixture of both vintage and modern equipment. While there was some newly installed gear, such as the flight instruments and a panel mounted GPS system, there was plenty of the original design intact as well. The half steering wheel shaped yoke is something that isn’t seen anymore, and those thrust levers can only mean DC-3!

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Unfortunately, this plane wasn’t available for rental today!  Would have been super cool to take her up for a spin.

Talking with the guy there, he told me how he was working on restoring this plane for the owner. Parts were nicely arranged along the hangar floor, a seemingly endless project to get her flying again. From what I gathered, the light was starting to be seen at the end of the tunnel. The engine work was getting close to being finished, and the propeller was about to be sent off to a shop for an overhaul.

Before long, the fueler had arrived and got us all set for our journey back home. After paying the tab, we departed without having any further delays. Although the flight back was somewhat bumpy thanks to a low-level jet that was moving through Texas, we made it back in just over an hour due to a nice tailwind.

All in all, this was a very successful trip. Sure, there was a delay, but what I have found is that some of the rather memorable things I’ve done have stemmed from a delay of some sort. The things you see and the people you meet while simply lingering around the airport can sometimes be just outright interesting. In many of these small towns, there isn’t too much to do(if anything), but there was definitely quite a bit that was seen on this excursion! On top of that, I now have bragging rights about having visited a place that is super close to the center of the best state in the country!