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Explosion-damaged West remains in heart of Rangers

Club proud to play role in community's rebuilding effort as Winter Caravan visits

WEST, Texas -- Nine months later, two big steam shovels are still busy clearing the rubble from what little is left of West High School.

The grinding of motor and metal, and the rush of the north wind cuts through the quiet serenity on a cold Tuesday afternoon, just a few yards down the old Dallas highway from the site of a massive explosion that rocked the town of West on April 17, 2013.

The demolished school is fenced in and a posted sign warns: "Keep Out. Authorized People Only." Two girls ride up on their bicycles and stop to watch the steam shovels at work. One girl takes out her cell phone and shoots a picture. Behind the school is the blown-out shell of what was once the agricultural education building. Beyond that, the land falls away for miles to the east, offering a sweeping panoramic view of the rich McLennan County farmland beyond.

This is the north side of West, where the West Fertilizer Company facility caught fire early on the night of April 17. While first responders, including members of the West Volunteer Fire Department, fought the growing inferno, a massive explosion was set off by ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored inside a silo. Fifteen people were killed and another 160 were injured by the blast in a farm and ranch community of 2,807 people 80 miles south of Dallas.

Now there is nothing left of the facility except for the raised foundation. The area is also fenced off with a warning that trespassers will be prosecuted. Across the road to the east is a beaten, and burnt-out automobile, the back side completely obliterated. A wooden cross draped with flowers is planted next to it. Both seem to be vivid reminders of what happened.

"Crazy ... pretty surreal," Rangers pitcher Tanner Scheppers said after visiting the area on Tuesday afternoon as part of the club's Winter Caravan stop in West.

West High School was one of 150 buildings that were destroyed or damaged that night. On the other side of the railroad tracks to the west sits the empty field where former Major League outfielder Scott Podsednik grew up playing baseball. It too is off limits because of the damage.

Podsednik was born in and raised just outside West, and he graduated from high school there in 1995 before being drafted by the Rangers. He and his wife Lisa now reside in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville, but his parents still live just outside West.

"I was at home in Colleyville and my wife was talking to my mother at 7:45," Podsednik said. "Suddenly, my wife said to me, 'Your mom heard a big explosion and had to get off the phone.' I talked to her an hour later, and what I remember was her voice in disarray as I was trying to get the facts of what happened.

"We sat there watching it on television in disbelief with our jaws dropped. You don't know how to react. You grew up here, you still have family and friends here. It's tough to put into words. The spirit of West played a part in shaping who I am and what I have accomplished as a player and a person."

There is still life amid the destruction. Adjacent to the blast site on the north side is an acre of grassy, tree-shaded land. But inside this fence, goats, sheep and a few small horses graze peacefully, oblivious to what happened on the other side.

Yes, the city of West is still living, breathing and in some ways thriving nine months later after that horrible night. The farmers and ranchers settled the area in the 1840s but the real birth of city -- named for the first postmaster Thomas West -- came in the 1880s with a large influx of Czech immigrants after the MKT Railroad was built.

The "Katy" is no more, but the historic train depot still stands and the Czech heritage is still very much in evident today. The Czech-American Restaurant downtown serves hot perogies and cold beer, the bakeries specialize in kolaches and apple streusel, and the Czech language is still spoken by older residents.

"There's more diversity than there once was, but we still have quite a few Czech descendants," mayor Tommy Muska said. "If you look at what's going on, it's that Czech-Texan resiliency that our forefathers showed. They came across on a boat and made something out of nothing."

Now the descendants rebuild vigorously. Over 50 new homes have been built near the blast site, and construction will soon begin on a new nursing home to replace the one destroyed that night. School is still in session in makeshift buildings, and a dedication took place on Tuesday morning for a new agricultural education building.

"We're doing great," Muska said. "We're doing quite well."

The Rangers have been with there with the town ever since the tragedy took place. Two days after the Wednesday-night explosion, the team hosted a three-game series with the Mariners. Over that weekend, the Rangers collected tens of thousands of essential items needed in West as well as thousands of dollars in gift cards. Podsednik and his brother-in-law, former Rangers outfielder Kevin Mench, helped lead the drive.

First baseman Mitch Moreland attempted to start an equipment drive inside the Rangers' clubhouse to help the West youth programs, but he suddenly realized his teammates' size 11-14 baseball shoes and 34-ounce bats weren't going to help many children.

"We said, 'That's not going to work, let's go in a different way,'" said Moreland, whose hometown of Amory in northeast Mississippi is not much bigger than West.

In all, Rangers players, employees, their fans and the Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation provided $40,000 in cash donations to be sent down to West along with what was collected during the Mariners series.

"The guys wanted to do anything and everything they could," Moreland said. "But you can never do enough. When something like that happens, you're always hoping to do more. It really hits home, I know how much something like this affects a small town."

The Rangers did not stop giving after their trucks delivered the first wave of donations.

"What we didn't know was the fight and the determination of the people of West," said Karin Morris, executive director of the Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation. "So when we got back, we thought, 'What more can we do?'"

The Rangers sponsored City of West Night at the Ballpark in Arlington on July 6, with over half the town attending the game. Pregame ceremonies honored city officials and emergency responders while remembering those who passed in the line of duty. The town was presented with a new fire truck donated by designated hitter and Texas native Lance Berkman. Other activities and gestures helped raise more donations.

"It's amazing," Muska said. "If there's something that can come of this, it's the show of humanity that's been shown to citizens of West. Such a gracious and generous donation by the players, and by the Rangers organization, and especially for the children that they helped with the baseballs and the equipment. That's really the heart of it.''

The Rangers were back in West on Tuesday, hosting 100 school children among other adults in the West Community Center. Scheppers, Moreland, Podsednik and Mench were there, along with broadcaster Steve Busby serving as master of ceremonies as the players answered questions and signed autographs.

On the wall of the main assembly hall were drawings and diagrams of the new West City Park, which will be built near the site of the blast. There were will be a playground, athletic fields and, most importantly, The First Responders Memorial. The Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation has donated $50,000 toward the construction of a park that will be centerpiece of the north side neighborhood that is slowly but successfully rising up from the destruction.

"Over the last three years, not only we as a foundation but we as an organization have become more sensitive to tragedies that happen in our own backyard," said Rangers vice president Jim Sundberg, who was also on hand Tuesday. "West was one of those tragedies, and we felt obligated to do something. Commissioner Bud Selig always says baseball is a social institution with social responsibilities, and we are trying to be more aggressive in our social responsibility.

"We just feel more of that responsibility when it hits so close to home like this did."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Lance Berkman, Mitch Moreland, Scott Podsednik, Tanner Scheppers