WEST — Rev. Terry McElrath heard the deafening boom. The pastor spun around and saw a column of smoke billowing into the sky above his small Texas town. He immediately thought, "Somebody has died tonight."
A spiraling fire inside the fertilizer plant in West had ignited 34 tons of ammonium nitrate, creating an explosion so powerful that it killed 15 people, leveled nearby homes and schools, and left a crater where West Fertilizer Co. once stood. Debris was strewn miles away.
"It's hard to believe that in one moment, so much damage could be done," McElrath told hundreds of people crowded in a pavilion at the local fairgrounds Thursday night, the one-year anniversary of the explosion.
A moment of silence at 7:51 p.m. marked the exact time of the leveling blast in a town that is recovering but still has a long way to go. Photos of the 15 victims were shown on a large screen, including Joey Pustejovsky, a 29-year-old married father who was among several volunteer firefighters killed.
"I called one of the firefighters at 2 a.m. that night. I said, 'Tell me, I want to know.' And he did," his brother, Brad Pustejovsky, recalled Thursday night. He told his father, and they decided not to tell his brother's wife and their mother for about three days, "but I knew," he said.
Yet soon after, Joey Pustejovsky's son, who was only 4 ½ years old at the time, raised $83,000 by selling hotdogs to build a park honoring his father.
Organizers were hoping to focus on those kinds of efforts Thursday, honoring the past but looking to the future. The ceremony featured a choir singing "Amazing Grace" on a stage decorated with ferns and flickering candles on which middle school students scrawled messages such as "Rise Up, West" and "Pray for West."