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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Architecturally speaking, the buildings at this school were pretty grand. It kind of reminded me of the buildings at Ole Miss.
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).
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.
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!
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. ”
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.
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.
We came across this abandoned, fairly big 12 story building, which caught my attention. It looked like a hotel at one point.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!