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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Update From West, 3 Months After Plant Explosion

A home spray painted with a heart and an inspirational message, damaged by the fertilizer plant explosion along Reagan Street is shown Friday, May 31, 2013, in West, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

A home spray painted with a heart and an inspirational message, damaged by the fertilizer plant explosion along Reagan Street is shown Friday, May 31, 2013, in West, Texas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Three months after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured at least 200 others, Mayor Tommy Muska says residents there are trying to move on and rebuild.

One of the main tasks has been demolishing destroyed home to make room for new ones.

“We’ve had about 117 demolitions in the last three months,” Muska said.

After three months, the effects of the explosion show in the town’s psyche, Muska said, and providing mental health services is a priority.

Students from Baylor University have been offering counseling to residents, and Muska says people often come into his office needing to vent.

“They just need someone to talk to sometimes,” he said. “I’ve been a cheerleader for the past three months. It took seconds for it to be destroyed, and it’s going to take a long time to get it rebuilt.”




It has been three months, exactly, since that fertilizer plant blew up in the town of West, Texas. A fire in the plant caused the explosion. Fifteen people were killed, at least 200 injured and dozens of homes were damaged. There are still outstanding questions about what caused the initial fire that prompted the explosion, but we wanted to check in with West to find out how things are going now, three months on.

Tommy Muska is the mayor there. Mr. Mayor, thanks for speaking with us.

MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA: Well, you're welcome, and thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, how are things right now in West? What does it look like?

MUSKA: Well, it's changed. The whole north side has changed a great deal. We have been very busy down here, had about 117 demolitions in the last three months or since the explosion. Most of the homes in that affected area were demolished. A number of them, like my own, are being repaired.

There's probably about 25 that are being repaired, and the rest are being demolished, and so we've had the help from the Texas Baptist men, and they've come in and demolished a bunch of properties free of charge for the homeowners. So it saved them a lot of money.

HOBSON: And how are people feeling? I read a line in the Dallas Morning News that said adrenaline has subsided, and frustration has mounted.

MUSKA: Yes, you know, you work off - it's very much the same way as any type of mourning. First it's rejection, and then it's anger, then it's frustration, then it's, you know, all these different emotions that a person has. And now, you know, with the adrenaline of the first couple of months gone, you know, things are settling down, things are slowing down, but they go through these emotions, and their mental condition is some of them are frustrated, some of them are still upset.

And we're concentrating on mental health for these people, and have Baylor that's bringing in some students for counseling. So we've got counselors here for the people.

HOBSON: You say for the people. I mean, your home was damaged in the explosion.

MUSKA: Yes, well I was already crazy, so it didn't make any difference.


MUSKA: But seriously, they just need someone to talk to sometimes. It's just to vent. You know, if they just come into my office, if they want to, and just scream, it makes you feel better. You know, it's going to be OK. I'm going to be their cheerleader. You know that. I've been a cheerleader for the last three months.

You know, it took seconds for it to be destroyed, and it's going to take a long time to get it rebuilt.

HOBSON: Are the conversations you have with people about anything other than the explosion? I mean, has normal life gotten back to business in any way?

MUSKA: We've had some. If you want to call 4,500 tickets to the Ranger game normal.


MUSKA: But the Ranger organization over here, down here in Texas gave everyone in the city an opportunity to come to their game when they played in Houston a couple of Saturdays ago. So we had a nice day at the ballpark. They brought buses down to take people. They obviously also donated quite a bit of money, a fire truck and about $150,000 to the city for the long-term recovery fund.

So I don't know if that's normal to have 4,500 tickets given to you, but we had a day at the ballpark. And no, not really, everything is what we're doing next.

HOBSON: Have you gotten the assistance that you need? I know that last month FEMA denied a request for millions of dollars in aid to the city of West. Are you getting the money you need?

MUSKA: Governor Perry, as of the ninth of July, sent in another request to reconsider. I'm really hoping that the president will reconsider their initial decision. You know, he set at the memorial that he'd be with us, the country would be with us long after the cameras are gone. Well, the cameras are gone. We're third-page news now. But we still need the money from the government to get us out of this hole.

The state of Texas has come forward. They've allocated $10 million out of the rainy day fund for infrastructure and for the school. So if the federal government decides to get involved, we will have enough money to redo the infrastructure that was damaged.

HOBSON: Looking back three months later, do you feel as though something could have been done to prevent this?

MUSKA: No, you know, sometimes bad things just happen. The fact is there was a fire in the plant, and it just happened so quick. The one thing that I'm so proud of is that this department got a call from 911 at 9:29, and we were onsite, en route, at 9:36, and at 9:52 it blew up. You know, they were there less than probably 10 minutes, and by the time that they realized they needed to back out, it blew up.

It was just an accident that happened. You know, you can blame all sorts of stuff, but it just happened. Now, do we need a fertilizer plant? Yes. Do we need it right in town? No, I think it probably needs to be out in the country somewhere, you know, away from a populated area. And we'll see how that carries out, but I think government's already come up with more regulations on that type of product and how it's stored.

So maybe something good is coming out of the 15 deaths that occurred.

HOBSON: Mayor, finally, let me ask you, for other places in this country that at some point will have to deal with something like this, what would be your message to them after having been through this?

MUSKA: Well, you handle one problem at a time. And, you know, there's been a lot of talk with me and the good lord upstairs about, you know, decisions that we're making. You know, we have a good city council. They have been diligent in discussing all the problems and working out each one.

You know, it is - it's a nightmare for any mayor or any city council to go through this, and one of these days I'll sit back and review my notes and see exactly what we did right, and what we did wrong. We didn't do everything right, I can tell you that.

Now, this town is resilient, and it's going to bounce back. If your radio could have a view on it, you would see a wonderful thing down on the north side of town, and that is that we're not waiting for anybody. We're moving forward. And, you know, there's people that have got walls and roofs on their houses, and they're building. And so we're moving forward.

HOBSON: Tommy Muska is the mayor of West, Texas. Mr. Muska, thank you so much for talking with us, and best of luck.

MUSKA: Thank you very much.



OK, up next researchers are studying whether they can turn off that extra chromosome that causes Down's syndrome. It's provocative news. It's just out today. We'll have that. Other stories we're following, both parties in Congress appear to be coming together over sexual assault in the military. A new bill could remove commanders from the judicial process in some cases. This is something military leaders were objecting to.

Also despite harsher sanctions, sports still has a doping problem. We just heard about elite runners admitting to failing tests. So are performance-enhancing drugs the norm now for sports? We'll have this and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in one minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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