Four years since West Fertilizer Plant explosion

Posted at 10:15 AM, Apr 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-18 00:03:22-04

Monday marks four years since the explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant.

On April 17, 2013, 15 people were killed, including 12 first responders. More than 150 people were hurt and at least 500 homes were destroyed.

Mark Pope was a police officer in West at the time. He was at an EMT class when the call came out for the initial fire at the fertilizer plant. He says he walked outside, saw the smoke, and immediately went toward the plant to block off any traffic that wasn't first responders.

"Everything got really quiet all of a sudden, and it was two hits. It was a buh-boom," Pope said. "And from where I was at, I remember feeling the hit."

It threw him 20 feet from where he was standing. He blacked out for a minute, and when he finally opened his eyes, he remembered seeing flaming debris and clouds of smoke.

"The first thing, with flaming debris still coming around, I mean everyone was trying to hide. And as soon as it settled, that's the first thing. I mean everyone in the immediate area: everyone needs to go, evacuate the city and make sure everyone is okay," Pope recalled.

Right before the blast, Mimi Irwin, owner of Village Bakery, had just gotten home to change her clothes after leaving the bakery.

"I started tying my shoe laces... and seconds later, I found myself on the floor of my den," Irwin said.

She drove back to the bakery to check on the bakers and the building.

"I felt like I was driving over cracked ice because there was so much glass," Irwin said.

Miraculously, the windows at the bakery were still intact. The bakers had left the back door open, so when the blast hit, it relieved some pressure from the building.

Irwin said as she was driving to the bakery, she was thinking of one thing: the September 11th attacks.

"It was almost as if 9/11 were being replayed on a smaller scale, but in my hometown of West... really? How did this happen?"

Irwin, who grew up in West, was living in New York City when the Twin Towers were hit in 2001. She lost two people very close to her. 

So when the explosion happened in West, it hit close to home.

"It was a replay of emotions," Irwin said. "Everyone in our community was touched by the loss."

The tight-knit West community grew closer together because of the tragedy.

"Our whole community has just a revitalized spirit to it. But you still... there are holes in the fabric that aren't ever going to be sown up," Irwin said.

In the past four years, hundreds of homes have been rebuilt. The high school and middle school were also rebuilt. 

There are memorials set up at the old site of the fertilizer plant and the fire department.

On Monday, construction started on a new memorial site. 

"This will be a memorial area for all of the people that died in that process that day," Joe Pustejovsky, the father of Joey Pustejovsky, a firefighter who died in the explosion, said. 

The memorial will have a water feature and an eternal flame. 

"When you walk into the memorial area, the story wall will have a few pictures and a brief story about what happened," Pustejovsky said.

There will be 15 individual stations, one for each person who lost their life. 

"Those lives were not lost in vain, and we will remember those people for their courage and what they did that day," Pustejovsky said.

They are hoping to have some of the project finished by the summer. Ideally, the entire project will be complete by April 17, 2018.

In May 2016, officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office announced the cause of the fire as an incendiary and a criminal act.

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