WEST, Texas -- When the fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Co., Nick Kucera and his twin brother jumped in their Ford F-150 pickup and rushed toward the flames.
Kucera, 17, a pitcher for the West High School Trojans, said he was simply checking out what was burning; it never crossed his mind that he could be driving toward a potentially dangerous explosion.
“I was just being a curious teenager,” he said. “Luckily, the windows were down when it went off.”
The April 17 blast rocked his pickup and shattered the rear window, leaving him and his brother with cuts and scratches but otherwise unharmed.
His family’s home wasn’t as fortunate. The explosion left it uninhabitable and his family is now staying with friends near the town of Leroy, about seven miles from West.
But the tragedy hasn’t caused Nick or his brother, Jackson, a shortstop, to forget about baseball. The windows of the family’s red-brick home are now covered in plywood that are spray-painted “Go Trojans” and “Win State.”
For the Kuceras and the residents of West, the school’s baseball and softball teams appearances in the playoffs have been a much-needed respite from the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant, which killed 15 people, injured more than 200 and destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings.
“It’s great to have them out there playing again,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska. “They're out there playing their hearts out and doing what they love. With everything going on in town, it's a nice distraction for everybody.”
‘It’s been easier this week’
Getting the players focused on baseball has been a challenge, said West baseball Coach Cory Beckham.
Besides the emotional toll of dealing with the death and destruction, because the schools in West were damaged in the blast, the students are also having to adjust to attending classes in the Connally school district, about 15 miles away.
Nick Kucera admitted it was hard to block everything out when they played their first game after the explosion - on the same day of a memorial service in Waco for the first-responders who died in the blast.
“I tried to think about baseball but it wasn’t easy,” Kucera said. “I kept thinking about what was going on but it’s been easier this week.”
Because West won District 17-3A, the Trojans received a first-round bye this week, which was much-needed to get the team in the right frame of mind, Beckham said. The Trojans will begin their run in the playoffs next week.
Large turnout at recent games has really struck a chord with the team.
“In our two home games, we’ve seen a lot of people in the stands, not just from West but from surrounding towns that have come out to show their support,” said Beckham, who noted that baseball teams from neighboring schools watched the first home game following the explosion.
The players have definitely noticed the difference.
“When you look up in the stands and see three times as many people as normal and everybody is getting interviewed after the game, it’s a little different,” said Cole Anderson, 18, a senior outfielder and pitcher.
‘We’re going to stay’
Like the Kuceras, the Anderson family isn’t back in his home.
Though his family lives across Interstate 35 from the rest of town, the blast caused structural damage to his home.
“As the crow flies, we’re less than a mile from the blast,” said Cole’s father, Brian Anderson. “My house is in direct line with the fertilizer plant and we’re up on a hill so there was nothing to break up those shock waves.”
The Andersons spent more than a week living out of a camper and are moving into a friend’s weekend house outside of town. Brian Anderson and his younger son, Caden, were less than 500 yards from the explosion but they only suffered minor cuts and bruises.
“We’re going to rebuild somewhere - but it will be in West,” Anderson said. “We’re from here. We’re going to stay.”
But Anderson, who owns the Pizza House and Gerik’s Old Czech Smokehouse and Bakery, said he isn’t sure everyone will rebuild.
“I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of vacant lots for sale,” Anderson said. “Those people that don’t have ties here, they’re already packing up and moving out.”
That’s why baseball is so important, Brian Anderson and others said.
“It gives everybody a release,” said David Woodard, West’ athletic director and head football coach.
Woodard’s home was destroyed in the blast and his two daughters were inside the home when the explosion occurred. They were not injured.
Now, his family is living outside of town in a cousin’s vacant house with his in-laws.
“It gives everybody that opportunity for those two to three hours when our baseball and softball teams play to be with other people in our community and just enjoy a game,” Woodard said. “I think it means a lot that we still have athletic games going on.”
‘We’re a baseball town’
The West baseball and softball teams currently don’t have their own fields. They practice and play at the Little League fields on the south side of town away from the explosion site.
A report presented to the West school board this week recommended that both the high school and intermediate school will need to be demolished and rebuilt.
Ironically, bids were scheduled to go out this week for a new athletic complex adjacent to the high school that would include baseball and softball fields as well a new track and football practice field.
“I think it’s eventually going to happen,” Woodard said. “With all of the new construction of everything we’re doing, I think it will all just tie in together.”
Woodard expects the football team to be practicing and playing games in West next fall. But having West’s baseball and softball teams still playing on those Little League fields brings a little familiarity.
“It’s where it’s supposed to be,” Woodard said. “Everybody expects baseball and softball to be played on those fields and that’s what we’re doing. It hasn’t changed a bit and right now, that’s probably a good thing.”
Despite the distractions, expectations are high for both the baseball and softball teams. West won the Class 3A baseball championship in 1999 and lost in the finals last year. The girl’s softball team has been to state three years in row and the Lady Trojans play Friday night against Pollok Central after sweeping bi-district against Taylor last weekend.
“We’re a baseball school,” said Beckham, a former assistant baseball coach at Brewer High School in Fort Worth. “Kids grow up wanting to play baseball and there’s a lot of competition for playing time. People expect to win here.”