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When our world explodes, neighbors are there

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our hearts were heavy last week, burdened by news and images from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. By Wednesday, it had become clear that the explosions were indeed related to terrorism.

I remember thinking I’m glad I’ve always lived in small towns. It’s unlikely a terrorist would ever target an area that wasn’t highly populated. Small-town folks would be spared from such tragic incidents of mass casualties.

By Wednesday night, I knew I was wrong, at least partially.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

I was in a meeting near downtown Decatur when I heard a low rumble that sounded like distant thunder. I thought it was odd, since storms were still well off in West Texas.

The sound, I’m now convinced, didn’t come from West Texas but from West, Texas.

When I got home, my wife said my mom had posted on Facebook about possibly feeling an earthquake in my hometown of Itasca, about 25 miles north of West. She had never felt anything like it.

Not long after that, word began to circulate about a fertilizer plant explosion in West. I flipped on the local news to see images, filmed by helicopter, of a community I knew quite well.

Only it looked like someone had set off a bomb on the northeast end of town.

My sister, a nurse who also lives in Itasca, and her husband jumped in the car and went to West. Because my sister is medical personnel, she was able to enter the triage center at the community center to tend to the injured.

It was chaos, she said. She helped clean and bandage a couple of the wounded, but she couldn’t find medical supplies or anyone in charge. People were walking around with pieces of glass sticking out of their heads. Some were burned, she said. She tried talking to a lot of the nursing home patients who had been evacuated from West Rest Haven, but she only got blank stares in return. People were in complete shock.

My sister saw one woman pushing her grandmother in a wheelchair. They had been told to leave the center because her grandmother wasn’t wounded.

“But she doesn’t have a home. Where am I going to take her?” my sister said the woman replied.

It’s hard to picture West in such a state of destruction. It’s not my hometown, but it’s pretty darn close. While I may not know anyone personally, as a fellow native Central Texan, I feel like I know the kind of people who live there.

I remember as a kid going with my cousins to swim at the Playdium, a large public swimming pool on the east side of town less than a mile south of West Fertilizer. It was the biggest pool I had ever seen.

Most everyone knows about the strong Czech heritage of the town and its famous kolaches at the Czech Stop, just off Interstate 35. But I’ve also eaten plenty of delicious meals at restaurants downtown. Judging by the photos I saw of business owners sweeping up broken glass, I suspect some lost their windows in the explosion.

As a teenager, I remember sitting at baseball games watching the West Trojans play my stepbrother’s team, the Hillsboro Eagles. The “plink” of the metal bats and cheers would sometimes be drowned out by a locomotive horn as the train rumbled by, directly behind us on the same tracks left grotesquely twisted by the force of last Wednesday’s blast. If you watched some of the aerial footage of the community center, you probably saw the baseball field located right behind it.

When I was a little older, I’d go to dances at the West Fraternal Auditorium. I’m not much of a dancer, but I remember going for a spin on the crowded dance floor among my peers.

When I graduated high school, I attended Hill College in Hillsboro. Several West High School graduates became my classmates. I noticed that one of the first responders who was killed, 37-year-old Perry Calvin, was a current student at the Hill College Fire Academy.

All these memories have positive feelings attached to them. Those memories bubbled to the surface, as I try to balance out the horrific images of lost lives and homes with thoughts of a happier time.

The explosion in West does not appear to be terrorism-related. But I suspect that the residents of West now personally know what terror feels like, even if there is no “trigger man” involved.

Prior to the incident in West, as I was engrossed in coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and trying to make sense of it all, I came across a quote by Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, that was being widely circulated on Twitter.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” Rogers was quoted as saying in his book “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book” published in 2002, just a year before his death.

I thought about that quote often as I saw the wonderful outpouring of help – not only from those in Central Texas but all over the country and the world – in response to the West explosion. It made me feel good to know that my North Texas neighbors in Wise County cared about my Central Texas neighbors in times of great need. I fielded several phone calls and emails from readers organizing relief supply drives for both the victims and the rescue workers in West.

Even when reports began to circulate from the West mayor that enough had been given already, people continued to give. Why do they do it? I believe people give not only to help those in need – they give because it’s what we do. It helps us cope with the loss and the pain. And it’s not just in times of mass casualties. Just ask anyone around here who has experienced the death of a loved one. I would bet their refrigerator was overflowing with food brought by well-wishers.

According to a story in the Waco Tribune, the daily newspaper that covers West, the officer in charge of donations was quoted Saturday as saying donations are still welcome, adding that the recovery and rebuilding process will take some time.

From Boston to West, we saw the helpers Mister Rogers talked about. It will serve as a reminder that no matter what tragedy might befall us, our neighbors will always step up to help.

Brian Knox is special projects manager for the Wise County Messenger.

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