A makeshift sign is placed on the side of a road in West, Texas, on April 20, 2013, three days after the April 17 fertilizer plant blast which killed and injured residents of this small Texas community.
When Ashlyn McNeely felt an earth-shaking explosion, she didn’t know exactly what was happening, but instincts told her to run toward a giant plume of smoke and debris billowing in the sky.
“We heard it and felt it,” she said. “The glass had blown out in the windows — you could see a huge mushroom cloud.”
McNeely, a nursing student at Baylor University and ROTC cadet, relied on her training after a fertilizer plant exploded in the tiny town of West, Texas, about a one hour drive south of Dallas. From the Czech Stop, a popular gas station and kolache shop, McNeely rushed to the scene with two other students to help rescue victims.
The explosion at West Chemical and Fertilizer Company occurred shortly before 8 p.m. on April 17, and ultimately claimed the lives of 14 while destroying numerous homes, including a nearby apartment complex and nursing home. Officials still do not have an answer for what caused the fire that ignited an explosion.
McNeely, who was returning to Dallas after class in Waco at the main Baylor campus, was among some of the first to respond to the scene. She helped set up a triage area and rescued victims from the nursing home, which she said was missing a roof from the force of the blast.
“The nursing home was completely destroyed,” she said. “A lot of the patients were bed ridden and in wheel chairs, which made it tough to get them out.”
Destruction in this community of 2,800 residents has prompted students from across Texas to help with relief efforts. University organizations planned blood drives, memorial services and collected supplies in the days after the explosion.
Members of the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Texas at Austin collected donations of toiletries, clothing and other relief supplies after seeing the damage on the news and social media. Senior Allison Matous, a member of the sorority majoring in sociology, said that she saw an outpouring of sympathy on Facebook, but wanted to help herself.
“I wanted to be able to do something physically,” she said.
Matous has extended family and friends from West, and while she isn’t originally from the town, she regularly attends polka dances in the community known for its strong Czech heritage and culture.
Ethan Sparks, a junior math and geography major at UT-Austin, lived in West his entire life before attending college in Austin. He said that his family was “one of the lucky ones,” only sustaining a few broken windows in their home. But because of the close-knit culture of the town, the explosion in some way affected almost everyone.
“Everyone knows everybody here,” he said.
Sparks said that he had never thought of the fertilizer plant as being a potential hazard because it was such an integral part of life in the town. He said that West is primarily a farming community and depends on a steady supply of fertilizer.
Students from Baylor University, which is about 20 miles from the small town, also joined in on the relief effort. A Facebook page called “Baylor Supports West” was created to help send out information about relief efforts and volunteer opportunities.
The university planned a blood drive two days after the explosion to help those injured. Rebecca Malzahn, a junior journalism and public relations major, said that the line for the blood drive “literally wrapped up and down the street.”
“To see students step up like this is just overwhelming,” Malzahn said.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama plan to visit the campus Thursday to participate in a memorial service for the victims of the explosion.
You can visit Point West Bank to donate to the relief efforts.
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