WEST, Texas — One year ago on April 17, five-year-old Parker Pustejovsky lost his father in the fertilizer plant explosion that wrecked the small Texas town of West. Joey Pustejovsky was one of 10 first responders to die trying to put out the fire that precipitated the blast. It wasn’t long before young Parker declared he would rebuild the city park, stripped bare by the explosion—and he’d do it by selling hot dogs.
Word of Parker’s plan spread quickly in the tight-knit Czech town, known for its famous kolache bakery on Interstate 35 between Austin and Dallas. His grandparents and late father’s friends helped him create Parker’s Park Project and plan the hot dog sale that would raise $83,000 in the course of just a few hours on a July afternoon. Last Saturday, Parker’s Park Project unveiled the preliminary design for the playground and held a silent auction, run by the cast of A&E’s Storage Wars: Texas.
Parker’s grandparents never thought they would raise that much money the first time around, but the real surprise was in the figure itself. Their son Joey, Parker’s father, had been born on August 3, 1983, weighing 8 lbs. and 3 oz. In a deeply religious town that residents insist was touched by God on the night of the explosion—the three schools destroyed in the blast were empty, and only two people died inside buildings, despite the fact that hundreds were either totally obliterated or severely damaged—everyone was sure Joey was there, holding his son’s hand as the little boy traded hot dogs for $2,000 Visa gift cards and $100 bills.
They felt the same way last weekend, when the final count for the fundraiser came in at $83,315.
The park is the latest testament to West’s urgent need to bounce back and its refusal to be defined by the explosion. Through sheer force of will, the town is recuperating from devastating loss at a remarkable rate, not least because of its resilient population’s unyielding sense of community and self-reliance.
“They’ve worked very, very hard and have gone through the darkest part of this explosion and now they’re coming out on the other side,” says West Mayor Tommy Muska. “Some of them are coming out faster than others but we’re all going to get through this together.”
The town’s strong ethos of self-reliance was never more evident than in the aftermath of the blast. When charity organizations set up temporary shelters for West residents and created a fund to help with expenses, the shelters went largely unused and the money untouched as people took in displaced family and friends.
The explosion left the north part of town without electricity, gas, and sewage; city staff—many of whom had just lost cars and possessions—immediately went to work on reinstating those essentials. Since then, they’ve developed plans for restoring the streets, revamping a vital well, and starting other infrastructure projects that are moving forward now that federal funding has been secured.
“They’ve got a stubborn mayor that loses his temper when things slow down,” says Muska, who also lost his home in the blast. “I don’t have much patience, but maybe that’s a good thing because things have got to get done.”
The blast, which registered as a small earthquake and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep in place of the plant, damaged buildings miles away. Seventy-three homes had to be demolished and completely rebuilt, and another 170 were partially restored. Families have since left trailers and friends’ homes to move back into the restored houses and about 25 of the rebuilt homes, but most of the rebuilds are still under construction.
Three of four schools in West Independent School District were shuttered after the blast, which crushed and ignited the intermediate school and irreparably damaged the middle and high schools. Nearly 800 students squeezed into the elementary school and into a mothballed building in a nearby school district while West ISD built a temporary campus.
In July, the school district will break ground on a secondary complex that will house the middle and high schools, while the elementary school is being expanded to accommodate the intermediate students. West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford says they expect to complete the schools by December 2015.
“There are little pockets of success everywhere,” Crawford says. “I think [they] are going to add up as a whole and five or 10 years from now West is going to be able to pat itself on the back and be a fine example of how a community was able to pick itself up off the ground and dust itself off.” ORIGINAL ARTICLE IN THE DAILY BEAST