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Texas explosion takes toll on small-town West

The fertilizer-plant explosion that killed at least 14 people and injured almost one of every 10 residents of West, Texas, also devastated two of the town's beloved institutions: its schools and volunteer fire department.

At least five firefighters -- about 15 percent of its force -- are feared dead from the blast Wednesday at Adair Grain Inc.'s warehouse. Three of the five public schools remain closed.

Those blows, plus injuries to 200 people and 35 others still missing, have broken hearts across this rural community of 2,800 people.

"These are the institutions of this town," said Joann Williams, 70, who was making an ice cream sundae when her ceiling caved in from the blast. "The schools and the firefighters put on big dinners and fundraisers and help everyone out. It's a family oriented, close-knit town."

A largely Catholic community, West traces its roots to Czech immigrants who settled in central Texas to farm wheat and corn, according to the West Chamber of Commerce website. Their descendants moonlight as volunteer firefighters, said Ronnie Sykora, a former volunteer, like his father. The fire department was established in 1894.

"A lot of the guys start when they're 18 or 20 years old and spend their whole life there," said Sykora, a church deacon whose family owns the local Ford dealership. "It's a camaraderie that keeps them there."

The same sense of community will pull the school district through, said Marty Crawford, superintendent of schools. "It's going to be an adventure for all of us," he said Thursday.

Rebuilding will be costly. West, with revenue of $855,000 in 2004, lost three fire trucks and an EMS vehicle in the blast, said a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The school district listed $13 million in long-term general-obligation debt as of Aug. 31, 2012.

Janie Salazar, 57, said her three grandchildren have excelled in the schools since the kids moved from Dallas, 80 miles away, two years ago. "The teachers and everybody are very good and friendly. They're great," she said.

Firefighters collected half of the money to build the firehouse in 2003 with local fundraisers.

"People in West are very generous . . . but for themselves they are very conservative," said Georgia Hutyra, president of the History of West Museum.

That was evident yesterday, as vehicles lined up about a half-mile to the rodeo grounds, where volunteers used forklifts to sort mounds of donations.

The town will have a longer-term need for construction materials and cash, said Jim Gerik, a spokesman for the volunteer group collecting donations.

Two local banks were accepting cash, and a website, pointwestbank.com, has a link that accepts donations to help rebuild.

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