It’s a Blessing to be from West

By Kevin Tankersley

Four families rebuild after the explosion

It was a massive explosion. It felt like an earthquake, many people said. On the evening of April 17, 2013, a fire occurred at the West Fertilizer Company, which was located on the north end of West, the community of about 2,800 citizens located 18 miles north of Waco. While firefighters were battling the blaze, the facility exploded at 7:50 p.m., killing 15, including 12 first responders at the plant site. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, and many of those have yet to be rebuilt. Some residents chose to leave West.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley talked with four families who decided to stay and rebuild. In the weeks after the explosion, some of them may have considered leaving but only for a moment, they said. Instead, they looked around at their streets and their neighborhoods and their town, they grieved with friends and received assistance from strangers. Some endured months of cramped living conditions, sharing space with family or choosing to live in travel trailers, just a few feet away from the construction site where their home was being rebuilt.

As the first anniversary of the explosion approaches, three of those families — the Holeceks, the Webres and the Kuceras — have moved into their new homes, and the fourth, the Landrum family, hopes to be in by April 17.

Holecek Family

Holecek Family

Toni Holecek has taught sixth grade social studies in the West school district for more than 30 years. Six years ago, she paid off her house, which was located about 900 feet from the West Fertilizer Company facility. She lived in the home with her 20-year-old daughter, Amy, who is studying elementary education at Baylor University. Toni has lived on Jane Lane in West since 1993. She and her former husband bought a house there when Amy was 6 months old. “It’s all she’s ever known,” Toni said. “This is home.”

WACOAN: What do you like about West?

Holecek: I love the family atmosphere of our district. I love the children. We have some of the best kids in the world, and I know that. They work hard. They’re really good people. I know how wonderful our kids are. Our parents are outstanding. It’s so neat to teach children who, I taught their parents. I’m teaching second generation now. I like to go above and beyond to reach out to them to let them know I’m there for them.

WACOAN: How has the explosion affected you?

Holecek: I had the house paid off. I paid it off when I turned 50. I was really proud of that. My car was paid off. The day of the explosion, I lost the house and just about everything in it. There was very, very little that could be saved. I lost my car. It was totaled. My parents moved from Ross into town after their first granddaughter — my daughter — was born. They moved the next street over, two houses down. They’re elderly, and they need a lot of TLC these days. They lost their house. A lot of my church was destroyed, West Brethren Church, right by the middle school where I taught. And I lost my place of employment. It was devastatingly huge.

WACOAN: Where were you when the explosion took place?

Holecek: I had come home after teaching all day and changed into some real comfy clothes. I was doing some laundry, and I heard all the sirens. I thought, ‘Well, after I get all these things hung up, I’m going to check it out.’ It was really intense, all the sirens and all. I came in here and looked out my front door. I saw my neighbor walking real quickly to the ambulance center [West EMS, located near her house.] I walked out and saw my neighbor go talk to some people at the ambulance center. Right before that, I looked out the window and saw this huge fire in the distance. I was sure it was the apartments on fire because it was a real wide and real tall fire. I saw [my neighbor] coming back, and I walked to the stop sign on the corner, and she said that it was the fertilizer plant on fire. The ambulance center was having training classes that night, and the whole building just emptied, and she and I were standing there talking. We watched for a few minutes — two or three, not many. We turned and started back toward my house. We got about 10 steps and were walking along when it exploded. I heard the noise and immediately grabbed her to me. She’s elderly, but she’s in real good shape. She’s in better shape than me. But I grabbed her to me, and neither she nor I fell down. Everyone I’ve talked to was blown across the street. A guy I graduated high school with was blown through his kitchen window into his backyard. Blown off their feet. Blown into walls. Blown across the street. Everybody I’ve talked to was knocked down by the force. I looked over my shoulder, and it was so bright I couldn’t look.

WACOAN: So, you were about 900 feet away from the plant, and the explosion didn’t knock you down?

Holecek: Didn’t knock us down. Some people have told me that’s because we were in motion, and other people said it was because we were four legs instead of two after I grabbed her to me. I don’t know what it was. It was God’s shield — I know what it was. The momentum, logically, should have knocked us down. During this time I was trying to run, but I felt like I was running in slow motion. My thought was that we had to get to my house to be safe. This fence [between her house and a doctor’s office next door] — I couldn’t see around it. I looked over toward the explosion, and it was a bright, bright light, and then it dawned on me what I was seeing. I looked again, and there were chunks of steel and concrete, metal, pieces of pipe — you can’t imagine what all — coming straight toward us, mixed in with a fine bit of sand. I saw it coming right toward us. That was the scaredest I’ve ever been in my life because I knew we were going to the hospital to get stitches or something. People tell me now that if it would have hit me in the head, it would have probably killed me. My thoughts at the moment were, ‘Oh, gosh. We’re going to have to go get stitches.’ I watched every bit of that go right past us, and not a single thing touched me or [my neighbor]. Not a single thing. These chunks of concrete were this big [holds up her hands]. They were huge.

WACOAN: About the size of a volleyball?

Holecek: Right. Coming straight for us. I thought it was going to be awful. I was already picturing the worst. I watched it all fly right past us. It’s like we had God’s shield around us. It really was.

WACOAN: You were between the chemical plant and your house, which was badly damaged, and you didn’t get hit?

Holecek: And my car was right there on the street, and [the insurance company] totaled it. All the doors were sucked in. The trunk and hood were sucked in. The roof was sucked in. Every [piece of] glass was either shattered or broken out.

WACOAN: When you came around that fence, what did you see?

Holecek: It was just like my house had been in a war zone. It was just … I don’t know how to describe it. Every window was out. The screens were blown off, blown in or blown out. My roof had big huge holes in it. The brick wasn’t falling off the house. My parents, their house was on the next street over, and the brick got knocked off the front of their house. But none of my brick was falling off. But later as time went on, it started shifting and falling. We went to [the neighbor’s] house, and she had a big driveway in the back. We opened her back door, and everything was on the floor — the roof, the ceiling, the insulation, everything. We were just screaming. We walked around, and this street has the most precious, sweetest little ladies in the world. They had taken such good care of me and my daughter. They treated her like she was their granddaughter. They were just precious widow ladies, most of them. My initial thought was that I had to get [the neighbor] calmed down and start taking care of these people. Across the street, was a 90-year-old widow lady. Then there’s another widow in her 80s. [Other neighbors] were gathering up that end [of the street], and I was gathering up this end. There was a house right across the street. [The resident] has been so precious to me. Her husband passed away a few years back. I went around back because I know she usually sits in her sunroom in her recliner in the evenings. I somehow tore the frame of her storm door off and got through there. I saw her whole house in the floor, and I was screaming for her. I was screaming, and then I would listen [for her voice]. She has a real weak voice. I listened as hard as I could with all my might, and I couldn’t hear her. I didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t find her. Couldn’t find her. Her grandsons came over and started going through her house. They were tearing through the house and couldn’t find her. I came back to get a flashlight for her grandsons, and every time I came in my house, I couldn’t believe it. I had a big screen TV, one of those real old ones. We couldn’t budge it. It got blown [across the living room.] Everything was down in the floor. Rafters were coming down, and door facings were blown into the room. Cabinets were about to fall off the wall in the kitchen. It was just awful. My dad was driving down the interstate, and he saw the explosion happen. He was in Abbott.

WACOAN: What happened to the neighbor, the widow who lived across the street?

Holecek: [One of her grandsons] called me and said she had gone out. She had crawled out her back window to the alley, barefooted. And she was screaming, ‘Help me! Help me!’ Some kind soul literally picked her up and put her in his car and said, ‘I have to go check on someone, then I’m going to take you to the community center.’ She was OK.

WACOAN: Where did you stay after your home was damaged?

Holecek: We stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house in Ross for a few weeks. There was a lot going on, so my daughter and I went and stayed in a hotel for about three weeks. Then we found an apartment to rent in Waco until we could rebuild. We’ve been back here for two weeks this Saturday.

WACOAN: How long did it take to rebuild?

Holecek: Right off the bat, I knew I wanted to rebuild right here. This is the same exact floor plan I had before. I have a walk-in shower now in my master bathroom — that’s the only change. I also have a back patio and a front porch that I didn’t have before. I’m real excited about those two things. But it’s the same floor plan. My brain was so rattled after all that. I couldn’t even imagine trying to start over with a [new] floor plan or design one. I loved this house when I first walked in it. So, we just stuck with the same thing. We started building in August. My builder, David Holecek, who is my ex-husband’s cousin, has been so wonderful. He has taken such good care of me. He’s such a wonderful builder and a wonderful man. He told me I would be in here by Christmas. I was real excited.

WACOAN: Did insurance pay for everything?

Holecek: Yes, I’m very blessed with a wonderful insurance company. My builder was just a little bit under what my insurance company paid. I feel so blessed and so fortunate. I just wish everybody who has suffered and is suffering was as far along as I am right now. I just feel so bad. If you go down [the street], you see empty lots. These freezing temperatures at night, in the 20s, I don’t know how Don and Brandy [Landrum] have survived in a trailer, but they always say, ‘We’re OK. We’re OK.’

WACOAN: Was the apartment you rented in Waco smaller than your house?

Holecek: Oh, yeah. It was much smaller.

WACOAN: Was it stressful for you and your daughter living in a much smaller space?

Holecek: No, it wasn’t stressful because we had nothing. With our insurance money, we bought TVs, but we had furniture given to us. My cousin sold me [several pieces of furniture] for an excellent price. She was going to sell it, and I know that what she sold it to me for was much less than what she could have gotten for it. But she was so kind. We pretty much filled up that apartment. It was a two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, upstairs-downstairs. It wasn’t all that bad. We were there for about eight months.

WACOAN: You have a new house and a new car. What did you lose that you can never get back?

Holecek: I don’t even know where to start on that. That’s a beautiful couch, and we got it at a really good price — free — but it’s new and different. Just that homeyness and comfort of everything you’re used to. Family pictures all over the walls. The things that I salvaged throughout the house were three pieces of furniture — all antiques — and that’s all I salvaged from the whole house. And maybe about 15 Rubbermaid tubs of pictures and things. All [my daughter’s] Girl Scout stuff. She took piano lessons for 15 years. We lost the piano, all her piano trophies, all her music. We saved a few knickknack things I didn’t want to get rid of. But most everything was just ruined. We haven’t actually got that stuff here yet — the tubs and the furniture that we were able to salvage. An old Victrola, an old refurbished dresser and a hutch that belonged to my grandma. It’s going to have to have some work done on it.

WACOAN: Where are all those things right now?

Holecek: A girl that I work with, she has a great big beautiful home in the country, and they have a workshop shed in the back, and the stuff is there. They loaned me their truck. Her husband said, ‘I have this old work truck, and you don’t have anything to drive right now.’ He insisted I drive his old farm truck, which was an extended cab, really nice truck. At that time, I didn’t know how much I would need a truck in the next month or two. I was constantly hauling donations and things that were donated to us.

WACOAN: I’ve always heard, especially after the explosion, that West is such a caring, tight-knit community. How have you seen that?

Holecek: It is unbelievable what people have done for me since this happened. I have had so many people contact me, bring me things, mail me money, be there for me. It’s unbelievable what people around me have done. It’s been the best feeling in the world, knowing that such a tragedy can bring people who are already tight even closer. It’s wonderful to be from this community. It’s unbelievable how wonderfully caring they are. Everybody I teach with, from every campus, has felt my pain. There were probably 10 of us teachers who lost our homes. What people from outside the community have done, too, has been overwhelming in a wonderful way. I never dreamed that if you just lose everything, then you can have things back in such a short amount of time. It’s a blessing to be from West.

WACOAN: You may have just answered this, but are there any positives that can come out of something so tragic?

Holecek: I’ve realized how strong we all are. If we can get through something like this, we can get through just about anything. I’ve realized how resilient our kids are in this community. I’m now teaching in a huge maze of portable [buildings]. You’ve probably heard about that. The kids have handled it so well. And they’re thankful and grateful and caring and loving. I don’t think you really realize that about people until a tragedy happens. You don’t realize what other people would do for you.

WACOAN: The one-year anniversary of the explosion is approaching. Will you do anything to mark the occasion?

Holecek: We’ll probably be away for the weekend. My daughter is still adjusting to it, and she is so glad to be back in West. She doesn’t mind the drive [to Baylor]. I complained a lot about the drive, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She’s so glad to be home.

WACOAN: Did you know any of the people who died in the explosion?

Holecek: I taught three of them when they were in the sixth grade. And I teach one of their sons this year. I don’t know what to do or say to try and make it a little better for him. I try my best to come up with what I can. I can’t imagine what they’re going through. He’s got a brother in eighth grade on our campus. His dad was one of the best guys I’ve ever known.

WACOAN: Are your parents rebuilding?

Holecek: My parents have relocated to Waco. They’re living in Lake Air Tower. That was really nice when I was living off of McArthur [Drive]. We were 2 miles from each other. I took my dad to his doctor appointments. He’s a cancer survivor. This has been really tough on my mom. She’s had a real hard time with this. I know from here to Waco is not that far, but it feels like a thousand miles. I talk to them every day, and I go see them during the week. I always see them on the weekends. I was taking them to church every Sunday, but now they’re going to church in town.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Holecek: They say when you tell your story, it really helps you. I feel that after I tell it every time. I told it so many times right after it happened. I was real robotic about it. I would tell this horrific story without a whole lot of emotion. I told it over and over and over. It’s so surreal, you know? Now when I tell it, it’s good to get it out and go through it again. It really is. I feel like I am giving it to you in a way. I shared it with you, and it takes a little bit of it out of me, which is a good thing.

Landrum Family

Landrum Family

Don and Brandy Landrum and their two daughters — Presley, 16, a junior at West High School; and Payton, 14, a freshman — also live on Jane Lane, just down the street from Toni Holecek. Don works for Mitchell 1, a software service provider associated with Snap-on Incorporated. Brandy works in the special education department at West Independent School District. They have been married for 23 years.

WACOAN: When do you think you’ll be in your new house?

Don: I’d say April. It would be really cool if we got in by the anniversary date of the explosion.

Brandy: The weather has not been cooperative.

WACOAN: How long have you lived here?

Don: We bought the house that was sitting here in 2000. We’ve been in West since 1995. Before that we were in Dallas for a few years, and we both graduated from Hubbard [High School].

WACOAN: You had to totally rebuild, right?

Brandy: We actually bought the lot the campers are on so that we could scoot the house over a little bit. The only thing we changed about the house is that we’re driving [into the garage] on the side instead of the front, and we needed that room. And we’re doing an outside kitchen.

Payton: And I’m getting my own bathroom.

Don: This really sweet lady who was our neighbor, we bought the lot from her. That’s something we’re going to miss. She went to an assisted living center. She’s 82 and not in a position to rebuild.

Brandy: It’s a street of quite a few elderly, widowed women, so out of all of them only one neighbor is rebuilding. It will be different.

WACOAN: If it was a neighborhood of older retired people how did you end up on this street?

Brandy: We loved the house. It’s a dead-end street. And we have grandmothers everywhere. They really took care of us. It was really nice that [the girls] could ride their bikes, and we didn’t have to worry about people coming through.

WACOAN: What kind of changes did you make to the house besides Payton’s new bathroom?

Brandy: [The girls] shared a bathroom, so now they each will have their own. We’re doing an outside kitchen. About five years ago, we closed in our attic for a little apartment room. Instead of doing that this time, where the stairwell was, we made Don a little office.

Don: But the layout is identical. When you walk in the front door, how you go to the living room, how you go to the dining room, how you go to the kitchen — all that is identical. We just stretched out a little spot, took the back porch and made it about 17 feet deeper to put in this outdoor kitchen. And we stretched out one bedroom about 10 or 12 feet so we could put in the other bathroom. Other than that, the layout is identical.

WACOAN: Did insurance pay for everything? Were there funds from elsewhere?

Don: We are building with our insurance money. Our insurance company was very good going through negotiations. They totaled the house. We, thank goodness, have an awesome insurance agent. He made some suggestions that really put us in a place that we wouldn’t have been before. He recommended that we look at not just the cost of paying off the house but the cost to rebuild the house. Really, that made a lot of the difference in us having the funds to rebuild.

WACOAN: When did you start to rebuild?

Brandy: We signed our loan on October 17. That was six months from the explosion. They poured the concrete on December 27.

Don: You could say, probably, the middle of November would be the construction start date. It’s going to be [a total of] six months to seven months of building. All that time between April and October, we were just trying to figure out what we wanted to do.

Brandy: Buying the other lot, that took a little bit of time.

WACOAN: Did you ever consider leaving West?

Don: I don’t know that we ever did — not even for one second. We maybe had a time when we were going through all the paperwork involved in putting the two lots together, there might have been a time when we said, ‘Why don’t we sell both lots and go to China Spring?’ or something. But we never seriously discussed it. Not at all.

Brandy: We’re happy with the schools. We love our friends here. It’s just our home.

WACOAN: Have you lived in the campers since the explosion?

Brandy: We lived at the KOA [Waco North Campground] in August, and then we moved the campers here. The girls are in one, and we’re in one.

Don: Neither one of them belong to us. Her parents own one of them, and when this happened, they said, ‘It’s yours.’ A niece of ours, her family had one sitting at a deer lease. It’s a really nice trailer, but it’s their deer lease trailer. They took it and had it all cleaned up and brought it to us.

WACOAN: Presley, how did it go from having your own room to sharing a trailer with your sister? How big is your trailer?

Presley: It’s 27 feet. This morning, I was getting up to go do homework, and she went to go run, but I didn’t know that. I was tiptoeing around trying not to wake up my sister, but she wasn’t even here.

Brandy: They each have their own little separate space. Payton has the bunk beds in the back, and Presley is in the master.

WACOAN: Payton, what’s it like sharing a camper when you are used to your own bedroom?

Payton: It’s a little challenging, but I love Presley. It’s not really much of a change. We spend a lot of time in each other’s rooms, anyway. It’s kind of like we combined our rooms together.

WACOAN: You said it’s a little challenging. What’s the challenge?

Payton: Well, the trailer shakes. So when I wake up, if I don’t tiptoe, I’ll wake her up. That and the bathroom is a challenge.

Presley: We have zero hot water. They have hot water in their trailer.

WACOAN: Why don’t you have hot water?

Payton: Our hot water heater only heats up for, like, five minutes. So, we have five minutes of hot water, then it stops. The other day, I was taking a shower before school, and it started icing on me.

WACOAN: So, it wasn’t just ice cold, but it was actual ice?

Don: Slush was coming out.

Brandy: They have really good friends where they go and take showers at their houses.

WACOAN: Is that the biggest challenge, the bathroom and hot water?

Don: Everything about the bathrooms is a challenge. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in a travel trailer before.

WACOAN: I haven’t spent any time in a travel trailer.

Payton: They’re not much of a vacation anymore.

WACOAN: Did it seem like a vacation at first?

Payton: The first week or two, we were with one of my best friends in her house, so that was really fun. Then we got to the campers.

Presley: We all lived in one trailer for a week.

Don: We would not have done that for a year. That would not have lasted. When we got the second camper, it became something we could manage.

Brandy: Ours just has the one bedroom and a pullout couch. They would have had no privacy, and it would have been hard.

WACOAN: How has it been for you two? What are your challenges?

Don: It’s the same. The bathrooms are a challenge. It’s not like a real bathroom.

Brandy: Cooking.

Don: There’s just no counter space at all. And everything that’s solid and doesn’t move, we have stuff stored on it. If it doesn’t move, we have papers and things stacked on it.

Brandy: We have crockpot meals, microwave. We cook like we normally would. We just make do with what we have.

WACOAN: Where was everybody on the night of the explosion?

Brandy: I was here with my niece. She lived in a little upstairs apartment.

Presley: Payton and I were at the church. My car was the only car that worked at that time. [My Mom’s] car, the inertia switch got flipped, so it didn’t move.

Don: It’s a fuel inertia switch. Her car was pointed away from the blast, so it raised up the back. There’s a switch in the car that tells that it’s flipped over, and it shuts off the fuel pump. So, Brandy’s car wouldn’t start.

WACOAN: Brandy, you were here. Presley and Payton, y’all were at church. Don?

Don: I was in San Diego, California, for work.

WACOAN: Brandy, what was it like in the house?

Brandy: I was in my room watching TV. I really thought [our neighbor] had backed into our house because she had backed into our fence a couple of times. Then it was just a boom. The windows shattered around me, so I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Our house just blew up.’ I thought it was our gas. Abby [my niece] and I met in the living room. She went to find her dog, and we went out. It was chaos. Payton called me, and they came home. The family behind us has a driveway that goes from the street almost to our house, so they drove up the driveway and stopped. We went and got some neighbors. People kind of congregated at our house. People were frantic, saying, ‘There’s another one that’s going to explode. Y’all need to get out.’ We all piled in two cars, the neighbors and us, and I was on the phone with Don the whole time. He was trying to get a flight. It was crazy. We went to some friends who live out in the country and stayed there.

WACOAN: What kind of damage did your house suffer from the initial blast?

Brandy: We had plantation shutters, and they were blown in.

Presley: I had six windows in my room. It would have been bad if I would have been in there.

Brandy: The roof kind of lifted and came down.

Don: The rafters were sticking through the Sheetrock. The worst part that I saw when I got back was all of the shards of glass just sticking in the Sheetrock. There was a big window in the master bath. [Brandy] was right where she needed to be, in the bedroom between the windows.

Brandy: You’re going to hear that over and over — ‘right where you needed to be.’ Angels everywhere, I’m sure.

WACOAN: Don, you were in San Diego. What was that first phone call like?

Don: It took awhile before I could understand anything she said. And then I got, ‘The house exploded.’ She was just frantic. I was eating dinner, and it was 5:30 [p.m.] in California. I paid the bill. I knew I was going home. I just started driving to the hotel.

WACOAN: When did you get home?

Don: I didn’t get back until 11 a.m. the next day, to Dallas. I had to get a rent car and drive back here. I stopped and picked up some supplies for them at Walmart in Hillsboro. I was talking to them on my way home. That was the worst 12 hours of my life. I knew everybody was fine, but for some reason it didn’t matter. I needed to see them. I needed to hug them and put my arms around them. I will never know what they felt. I will never know what that experience was that they went through that minute that happened.

WACOAN: What was it like the next morning when you got here?

Don: Well, our neighbor was still out there with us, and she wanted some stuff from her house. Me and a friend of ours got in the truck and parked over on the highway service road because by then it was all cordoned off. We snuck in through the field. I got to see the house the next day, about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I took pictures. The next day, you couldn’t have gotten in here because of the security. I got some medical stuff from our house.

Brandy: Our niece was getting married in July, and all of her wedding stuff was here. She was frantic. But they got her wedding dress. But after that, there was no getting in. That was before all the security got here.

WACOAN: It sounds like you could at least get into your house for a while. What kind of damage was there?

Don: Like all of these houses on either side, every piece of insulation and Sheetrock came down because of the explosion. It blew everything up, but then it sucked everything down because that air had to come back. Because we had put a roof up there, it gave us some extra support in the middle of the house. Inside here, you could walk around. All the support joists were broken. Before they tore the house down, we took a lot of things out of here.

WACOAN: Was there a lot that you lost?

Brandy: Not really. We left all of our mattresses, our couches, anything that was fabric that insulation or glass had touched. Our china cabinet, nothing was broken in that. It was amazing what didn’t break.

Don: But yet every door and window was blown out.

WACOAN: The one-year anniversary of the explosion is coming up. Are you doing anything to mark that?

Brandy: Well, they’re not having school. My niece is coming back. She feels detached. She lived with us for two years. We’ll do whatever the community is doing.

WACOAN: Did you know anyone who died in the blast?

Brandy: Luckey Harris, his wife, Holly, works at the school, and we knew Luckey from different school functions. And Buck Uptmor, the same way.

Don: We knew of at least seven or eight of them, just guys we met around town, just see at the Tiger Stop [Exxon Mobil gas station] or at church. It would have been Luckey and Buck that we would have known the best. We went to church with Buck, and Luckey was good friends with friends of ours.

WACOAN: West has been known as a tight-knit, caring community. How have you experienced that?

Brandy: You could not even imagine how much support was here. You couldn’t even drive from all the 18-wheelers bringing supplies. There were charter buses bringing people in to help. H-E-B fed us for two weeks. The VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] fed people. [Texas Baptist Men] cooked. They had a laundry station and a shower station. The Church of Christ went around and delivered sack lunches to people. We were given appliances. It was just amazing.

Payton: Not just businesses, but the night it happened, I had so many friends texting me, ‘We have food and water. Come here.’ Everyone was just trying to make sure that everyone was safe. We were calling best friends. We were making sure everyone was safe, everyone had a place to stay, everyone had food and water. Everyone was immediately caring for people.

Don: And our church was the same way. All the churches were. They didn’t care who you were. They all just wanted to help in any way. Provide building. Provide support. The Baptist church and the Texas Baptist Men tore our house down. That saved us about $20,000. The Catholic church helped and provided support services. The churches were amazing. If you ever give money to any sort of disaster, give it to a church because they have so many ways to put it to use. And they did — so fast. I had six offers that next day of places to live. They said, ‘You can live there as long as you want.’ So, we had our pick of places. Some were out in the country, and some were a family’s home in Waco, so we had lots of offers. For some reason, we wanted to be as close as possible to here.

WACOAN: So, why did you choose the campers over houses?

Payton: This lot is our home, whether or not we have a house here. Being here, being by our neighbors, the campers are our home.

Don: We just wanted to be close to town. The KOA is barely out of the city limits. We were still within five minutes of driving over here. It was not too long after being at the KOA that we knew that we wanted to move these campers back onto the lot so we could watch day-by-day. Pretty much every day since the day they started, we’ve been able to walk through and keep an eye on what’s going on.

WACOAN: Who is doing your construction?

Don: Phil Orler Construction. A local West guy, just him and his sons, maybe one other employee. We actually used Phil a couple of years ago when we built that upstairs room. That put us in close ties with him. And he goes to church with us, too. He sits in the pew right behind us.

Brandy: Even now, if it’s raining or if it’s cold, people are calling, ‘Y’all need a place to stay?’ People are still checking on us.

WACOAN: What’s it like in the campers when it’s 20 degrees outside?

Brandy: We don’t have any complaints. We have space heaters that keep us from having to use so much propane. Really, we’re comfortable.

WACOAN: Before this, had you ever gone camping?

Brandy: When the girls were younger, we would go to the lake, but it’s been several years — probably six or seven.

WACOAN: The next time you go on vacation, will you go camping?

Payton: No. I don’t think I’ll ever go camping again.

Brandy: We’re pretty much done.

WACOAN: Did you watch the house being torn down?

Don: I videoed it. Nobody else was here.

WACOAN: What was that experience like?

Don: You know, it’s just bricks and mortar. We can rebuild a house. We’re all fine. We’re safe. I’ve said that same statement over and over again: We’re fine. We’re safe. Rusty Johnson, a very good friend of ours, tore down our house. He was the one running the machine. Before he started, he wanted to say a prayer together.

Brandy: We were ready to move on by then. It was the end of May when they tore it down. We were just ready to move on.

Don: We were able to take days to go through and look through items. When it came to that, we were blessed. There were people whose houses burned. We were in a blessed position as far as that goes.

Payton: One family whose house was so destroyed that they couldn’t go in it, my friend said she watched her Uggs being put in a Dumpster. We didn’t have any of that, so we were lucky.

WACOAN: Have there been any positives that have come out of this?

Presley: Just the new house is nice. To pick out everything I want for my room and to be closer to my sister.

Payton: I think all of this has grown us closer in our faith. We were so blessed through all of this. Presley and I had considered staying home from church that night. We were tired, and we would have been in her room. That’s where some of the worst damage was, especially from the glass. We decided to go to church that night. There are so many stories like that, just God watching over us. I think that brings us so much closer to our God because we’ve seen real miracles happen.

Don: I think that we as a family have been able to see a side of society that other people can go their whole lives and never see. When that explosion happened, that next day when I got here, I had gone from San Diego to here, and by the time I got here, there were so many lines of vehicles full of supplies and help and people just driving around saying, ‘What can I do?’ We got to see that there is a lot more good in this world than we get to see very often. For the most part on your news stations, you’re going to see a whole lot of negative and a lot of bad. But there is a whole lot more good out there than people normally get to see.

Brandy: For spring break, the church will be full every day. People are still coming to help.

WACOAN: What kind of help is still needed?

Brandy: A lot of cleanup. In fact, in our neighborhood, people are coming this weekend to clean up our street.

Don: There are a couple of people who are organizers who let the elderly know that if they need something done around the house, people can come on the weekends and do that.

WACOAN: What are you looking forward to the most about getting back into your house?

Payton: Bathroom. Bathroom. Bathroom. Bathroom. Bathroom.

Brandy: Being back together as a family. Now, we’ll text [the girls] and say, ‘Supper is ready,’ and they’ll come over. There’s not a whole lot of room to stay together. I’m ready to be together.

Webre Family

Webre Family

Trish Webre and her husband, Tommy, bought a fixer-upper on North Reagan Street, just down from the West football field, shortly before their first baby was born. The 1,000-square-foot house had been built in 1913. Over the years, they added about 750 square feet of living space and renovated every room in the place, finishing their final renovation just three months prior to the explosion. Their daughter Stacy, the youngest of three children, works at the Waco law firm Naman Howell Smith & Lee while she is working on her second master’s degree at Tarleton State University. Trish and Tommy own Webre Mower Service, where they repair and sell lawn and garden equipment. They have owned the business since 1984, and it has been a full-time venture since 1987.

WACOAN: How long have you been in your new house?

Stacy: We moved December 13.

WACOAN: How long did it take to build your new house?

Stacy: We broke ground July 9.

WACOAN: Between April 17 and December 13, where did you live?

Stacy: We lived with my brother. My dad and mom and cousin had just built him a shop house, one bedroom, one bath — all four of us in there. I slept on an air mattress. Scott, my brother, was on and off the couch.

Trish: At first, he slept in the camper until that got old, then he moved to the couch.

Stacy: He let [our parents] have his bed.

WACOAN: What’s a shop house?

Stacy: It’s a tin building.

Trish: Part of it is a shop. He has a metal arts business. We built him a shop so he could have a part-time business out there. And we have a business next door to our house, [and that was] also destroyed. Then we moved our business out there with his building, and we worked out of it while we were down.

WACOAN: What were the biggest challenges of living there?

Stacy: Luckily, Scott works night shift, so we didn’t really mess with him too much. We weren’t really around when he was around. But my dad likes to get up at the crack of dawn. I do not. He has to watch his news, so he couldn’t get up and watch TV because I was on the floor in the living room.

Trish: Scott didn’t get home until about midnight, so we were already asleep when he got home. Then Stacy would go to bed early, so he had to go to bed when he got home because that was her bedroom.

Stacy: He would come home and have to be quiet.

Trish: The kitchen and living room were one room, so when he was coming home and trying to get something to eat at midnight or 1 o’clock [in the morning], she was in there asleep.

Stacy: I felt bad because I knew that if Dad wanted to watch his news, he would have to go out to the shop. We ended up putting a TV in the shop. Even though it was cold, he would go out in the shop and watch TV in the mornings. He didn’t want to bother me.

WACOAN: Trish, what was your biggest challenge?

Trish: I did OK. I really did.

WACOAN: Was it difficult to move your business as well?

Trish: We moved what we had to move, but a lot stayed here. As we were working, we were constantly making runs back here for parts that needed to go back over there. And then nobody knew where we were. Or thinking we were out of business.

Stacy: Customers didn’t want to bother us. They felt like they were bothering us by coming out there. But we needed the business. We wanted them to bother us.

WACOAN: On the night of April 17, where was everybody?

Trish: Stacy had entered a karaoke contest at Hog Creek Icehouse, so we were all in Waco, except Scott. He was at work. He works at L-3 [Communications Holdings]. My nephew, who works for us, he came by the shop to pick up a battery and was headed home. He was between here and the railroad track, when [the plant] exploded. He came back and found our roof on fire. He got the fire extinguisher and put it out. Then he called us and told us we needed to get home. And of course, it blew all the doors out. And we had a little white Maltese. And my nephew’s biggest concern was trying to find the dog. He thought he was in the house somewhere, but he never found him. Our neighbor later told us that when it blew the garage door out, they saw him take off. We never found him.

WACOAN: What time did you get home?

Stacy: I probably got home about 9 [p.m.]. They got here about 15 minutes before me.

Trish: When we left Waco, we thought it blew the windows out. As we were coming home, we started getting calls. Then we realized it was very serious.

WACOAN: What did you find when you got home?

Stacy: The outside didn’t look that bad.

Trish: It didn’t look bad because our house was 98 years old. And it was solid wood walls on the inside, and of course, there was Sheetrock. And everybody else’s houses, the Sheetrock blew, and the insulation blew. Ours held up because it was solid wood. It just took every door and window and every wall and just moved every wall. The force didn’t have any way to escape. It just started blowing the walls.

Stacy: The only thing that looked bad from the outside was our garage door was lying down. And then all the windows. And the porch was a little bit messed up. It didn’t look like it should have been demolished.

Trish: When we got home, we didn’t think it was that bad. Then we started touching walls and, literally, barely touching them, and they would move. We came inside to try and get clothes because we knew we would have to be leaving. In my bedroom the dresser that was against the outside wall had blown across the room. Instead of just blowing the glass out, it took the whole window frame. They were the older windows.

WACOAN: Did you lose a lot of your things?

Trish: All the furniture we did because it had glass damage. There was glass everywhere.

WACOAN: Pictures, books, things like that?

Trish: For the most part, we were fine on contents.

WACOAN: What did you think when the insurance company said you would have to tear down your 98-year-old house?

Trish: Well, the biggest deal to me was —

Stacy: The house was awful when they bought it. It was a fixer-upper. [My mom], my dad, Jason and my mom’s parents redid everything. There was not a period in my life when we were not redoing something. And we had finally reached the point where we were done. When did we finish the living room?

Trish: The January before.

WACOAN: So, in January, you had finished your house and had no more plans for it?

Trish: My husband said he was done. Everything was just like he liked it.

WACOAN: How long had you been working on your house?

Trish: Every few years, we just did what we could afford. We added on upstairs. We built a garage. And we added on an extra bathroom and a utility room.

Stacy: Busted out walls. Changed a bedroom into a living room.

Trish: That’s what we had done in January, when the boys had moved out. We had a big living room/dining room. Everything was like I wanted it. I think because we did it [ourselves], [tearing down the house] bothered me. If we had had someone come in and do the work, I would have been fine.

WACOAN: So, you didn’t hire contractors? When you say you did the work, you actually did all the work yourselves?

Trish: The day they tore it down, they were putting bucket loads in that truck, and I was saying, ‘I remember doing that. I remember the day we did that.’

WACOAN: Did you watch the house being torn down?

Trish: The first three hours were really hard. After that, it got easier.

WACOAN: The work you had done in your old house, did you replicate that in your new house?

Trish: The fireplace is kind of like we had in our old house but not really. The cross on the wall, my nephew who works for us, he built that out of wood from the old house. I did keep a piece of the old house.

Stacy: My cousin had just built, two years before, all new cabinets in the kitchen. Gorgeous cabinets that we had to tear out.

WACOAN: Who built this house?

Trish: Ronnie Kroll.

Stacy: He is president of Lochridge-Priest. He used to have Bradee K. Builders. He’s a good friend of mine’s dad. The day they let us back into the house, everything was crazy. I called him, and they came right away. He said immediately, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll help y’all.’ He was a huge help.

WACOAN: Did insurance cover everything?

Trish: We had it insured for $148,000. That’s what they paid. And they paid for the contents we turned in. We didn’t have any trouble with that.

WACOAN: Did you lose anything of great sentimental value?

Stacy: She had a lot of statues from her grandparents.

Trish: They meant a lot to me.

Stacy: Her display case was on an outside wall. And my dog, Bentley. He was the most perfect dog in the world. We don’t know what happened to him, I looked at every shelter in the state and put up flyers but no luck.

WACOAN: How big was your old house?

Trish: About 1,750 square feet of living [space].

WACOAN: And how big is this house?

Trish: It’s 2,300 square feet of living space.

WACOAN: How long have you lived in West?

Stacy: Forever.

Trish: My husband grew up here, and we got married in ‘81, so that’s when I moved here. We bought the house and had our first baby right after that.

WACOAN: Did you ever consider leaving West?

Trish: No, because of our business.

Stacy: I don’t think we would have, anyway.

Trish: If we didn’t have the business, we could have possibly considered moving out of the city limits. But, no, definitely never away.

Stacy: If they did, they would go without me because I’m not going.

WACOAN: What was the best thing about getting into your new house?

Stacy: Oh, my gosh. That air mattress was kicking my butt. [My brother] had concrete floors. I felt like an old person by the time I got out of there.

Trish: Privacy was a big deal. Literally, having no privacy ever. My husband and I never got to talk about anything for probably a week after the explosion. We never had any alone time ever.

WACOAN: West is known as a tight-knit, sharing community. How have you seen that since the explosion?

Stacy: Awesome. The amount of stuff that people gave to us and brought to us —

Trish: And quick. It was remarkable. It’s unbelievable how giving people are. How giving and how quick everybody responded.

Stacy: Our cousin works for Coca-Cola, and it took one phone call for them to bring a truckload of water. That night, they were there.

Trish: Everybody knew somebody to get something done. If they couldn’t do it, they knew somebody who could.

WACOAN: Have there been any positives to come out of this?

Stacy: For me, it was just the stupid stuff I used to get mad at. It makes you re-evaluate the way you view things, completely, 100 percent. Especially knowing there were so many people who lost their lives.

WACOAN: Did you know any of the first responders who died in the blast?

Stacy: My ex-boyfriend’s dad, [Luckey Harris], was the Dallas firefighter.

Trish: We knew Buck Uptmor, Cody Dragoo and Jimmy Matus very well. And then Luckey Harris, we knew him. But in some ways, it affected everyone. Everybody you know was in some way affected. It just affected more people than you would imagine. And things that used to matter, you just don’t care about stuff. Things that I used to think were important aren’t anymore. You realize what’s important in life.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Stacy: We’re definitely glad to be back. It’s weird how many things you miss just being outside the city limits.

Trish: The hardest part was probably waiting until we could get back in. We left that night, and we grabbed clothes and medicine — nothing else.

Stacy: When we were allowed back in, we weren’t sure what it was going to be like. There were restrictions on hours. We got in and got to work. Just trying to clean everything and pack up what we could.

Trish: People were just amazing.

Kucera Family

Kucera Family

Stephanie and Steve Kucera will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary in June. Stephanie works at Education Service Center Region 12, and Steve works in IT at Baylor University. They are parents to 18-year-old twins, Jackson and Nick. Steve grew up in West, and Stephanie hails from Valley Mills. After they were married, they lived in the Metroplex for a few years before moving back to West in 1997. Theirs was the first home to be rebuilt after being destroyed in the fertilizer plant blast.

WACOAN: How long have you been in your new home?

Stephanie: Since mid-August.

WACOAN: You had to totally rebuild right?

Stephanie: We kept our foundation, but they bulldozed everything else.

WACOAN: How long did it take to rebuild?

Stephanie: They started Memorial Day, so two-and-a-half months. But they worked seven days a week, double crews. They had 20 sheetrockers here on the day they did the Sheetrock. Double crews on the framing. It went up really, really fast.

WACOAN: That seems pretty quick for a new house. Why did it go so quickly?

Stephanie: Probably because they knew I needed a sense of normalcy. We had no place to go, no place to live. We stayed in Valley Mills with my parents the first four nights after the explosion, but that was way too far for our boys to drive to school, about 33 miles. These people offered us a place to live that Sunday before the start of school on Monday. We lived in their backyard, basically, in a garage apartment while they built our house. They just took care of us.

WACOAN: All four of you lived in the garage apartment?

Stephanie: Yes.

WACOAN: How big was the garage apartment?

Steve: About 1,000 square feet.

Stephanie: It had two bedrooms, a den and a little kitchen.

WACOAN: What were the struggles of living in a garage apartment for two months?

Stephanie: The boys had to share a room, and they haven’t had to do that since they were 3 years old, and they hated that. At first they only had one bed. When they went back to school, we went and got mattresses, so we had two beds in the room. That helped a lot. I think the main struggle was it was not our place, not our routine, not our stuff. It was just not our place. I work a lot at home, and it’s hard to work when you don’t have your stuff.

Steve: It was one of those things where we were just eating out all the time. Even though we had a stove there, we only cooked a couple of times. It was almost like you were away from home because we were on the road all the time.

WACOAN: Did you ever consider leaving West?

Stephanie: At first, I said, ‘I’m not coming back. I don’t want to live in West. I’m not going back to that house. I don’t want it.’ I had a real hard time with it. I had already decided we were moving. We were actually looking for property. Then we realized our neighbors were coming back, and we said, ‘You know, this is our neighborhood. This is our town. This is our street. We’re coming back.’

WACOAN: Where had you looked at property?

Stephanie: Out in the country, all around. Close to the West area but just to get away from town.

WACOAN: What made you think about not coming back to West?

Stephanie: Just fear. It was horrible. It’s like in the movies. You don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you, but it was just like in the movies.

WACOAN: Where were you when the explosion occurred?

Stephanie: I was standing in the living room. [Steve] was out in the street in his pickup talking to a neighbor lady. He was talking about the fire. The boys were actually near the park area — very, very close to the blast site.

Steve: They thought the high school was on fire. They decided to drive up there and see what was burning. As they were driving past the park, we think it was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy who told them to turn around and get out of there. They turned around in the last driveway and backed out. As they were backing out, [the plant] blew. It picked their truck up, blew out the back windows and blew out the side airbags. The house next to them lost its entire roof. They were very lucky they were in the truck.

Stephanie: It was kind of one of those instant things — turn around to get out of there, and that’s when it happened.

Steve: And they were wearing flip-flops, and they just opened the doors and took off running. One of my sons had no shoes. He left them in the truck. He ran from the area all the way through the neighborhood, through all the glass to put shoes on. He had one little piece of glass in his foot.

WACOAN: What was it like standing in the living room when the explosion happened?

Stephanie: I remember seeing it before I heard it. It’s like in the movies when you see everything coming in slow motion. I saw the wind or the force behind it. That’s what I saw. Then I heard two booms. I saw the blinds coming at me. The door was open, but there was a glass storm door, and I remember that blowing off. It was all in an instant. Then my dog took off running. We were getting ready to do some remodeling in here. We have been here 15 years. There was a man who was here measuring the floors, and he had just walked out the door. He no more than got in his car and drove down the street when it happened.

Steve: I remember him passing me and waving at me. About 15 seconds later, [the plant] blew. I was actually talking to my neighbor next door. They were standing in the street. I saw it was burning, and we were talking about the plant being on fire. One of the things that we said was that that plant could blow up. No sooner had we said that, it blew. The ground shook. I was sitting in the truck and could feel the waves move through the truck. I had the windows down, and [the neighbors] were standing next to the passenger-side door. When I looked up, they were at least 30 feet into the yard, like it blew them back. You’re just speechless. It came through, and you could see the trees bend. I remember seeing a lot of glass flying. On the inside of the truck, the headliner where you put your sunglasses and things, it came down like a force pushed it down. I drove to the back of the house, and [Stephanie] came out. She had some cuts on her. She actually asked me, ‘Did a plane crash?’ I told her, ‘No, the plant blew up.’

Stephanie: I don’t remember saying that.

Steve: At that time, the sky turned black, and things were just falling all over the place — burning pieces of wood and metal. There was a piece of metal about as big as me that fell about 30 feet from where I was standing. It was incredible. I told her we needed to get in the house. It was chaos.

Stephanie: We thought that one of the boys was in the house. I was really kind of losing focus because I didn’t know they weren’t here.

WACOAN: What kind of damage was done to your house that caused the insurance company to say you had to rebuild?

Stephanie: The windows and doors were all blown out. The walls were split sideways. In the boys’ bedrooms, the walls were completely blown through. The ceiling, it was like the force sucked it up and back down. The front room was completely collapsed on the inside.

Steve: The brick looked fine. You could walk up to the house and push the brick, and it would go in and come back out. What the insurance company said on our house was it actually lifted the roof and brought it back down, and it was about 7 inches off. And all of the supporting beams were snapped. The adjuster said, ‘If you’re going to fix the house, you’re going to have to tear the Sheetrock down. You’re going to have to tear your roof off. You’re going to have to tear all the brick off. You’re going to have to go down to the wood studs and replace them. You’re better off totaling it and rebuilding.’

WACOAN: How is your new house different from your old one?

Stephanie: It’s very similar, but the only room that’s exactly the same is our bedroom. When you walked in the front door, [there was a] formal living room, like in the old days, like in our parents’ house. We never used it. It had a Christmas tree in it; that was it. We decided to get rid of that and have a bigger dining room and a much bigger kitchen, thinking I would learn to cook, but I haven’t. We had a study room, but that is now one of our son’s bedrooms, and it is bigger. The other one has a bigger bedroom. Where one of the bedrooms was, we have a very large closet and a larger bathroom. Upstairs was an attic, and we wanted a man cave but couldn’t figure out where to put it down here, so it’s up there. The mantle from the old fireplace is up there. Our mailbox number, the boys got a sledgehammer and knocked that out, and it’s up there.

WACOAN: Since most of the house didn’t collapse, were you able to salvage most of your things?

Stephanie: We did, but most of the furniture had glass [damage], and it got torn up. But as far as personal effects, yes. A lot of our pictures were destroyed because glass in the frames was broken. When you think about how much stuff we have in closets, in drawers and behind doors, that stuff was all fine.

Steve: Her kitchen took a big hit. All that stuff came through from the blast, and it smelled awful. It left a crusty film on things. The Red Cross said to throw all the food out. The refrigerators, put tape all around them and throw them out. Most of the clothes in the closets where we didn’t have a roof collapse, we salvaged them. Then the house was open for almost two weeks before somebody was able to get in. In the front, water got in because the roof was collapsed. That damaged some things, too.

WACOAN: Did you lose anything of sentimental value?

Stephanie: There was one family picture that we had just taken for our church directory a few years back. It was in a frame hanging on a wall in the front of the house, and it was all scratched up. But we can take another picture.

WACOAN: What company built the new house?

Stephanie: Texas Professional Exteriors. They’re out of Waco.

Steve: We had a mortgage with a very well-known national bank, and we were about three to four years from paying it off. The insurance check is made out to you and the mortgage company, and we were dealing with a claims center in Ohio. They put the money in an account, and we had to do all this paperwork and fill out all these reports. It took us about a month to get the first draw. Our builder was actually floating the house as we were struggling with the mortgage company.

Stephanie: Not just anybody would do that.

Steve: It frustrated us so much. We gave [the builder] the first draw and then turned around and gave him the second draw almost immediately. He was moving faster than the mortgage company.

WACOAN: Did insurance end up paying for everything?

Steve: With our policy, they just maxed us out. So, it was about 90 percent.

WACOAN: The first anniversary of the explosion is coming up in April. Are you doing anything to mark that?

Stephanie: We know the city is planning an event that evening, but [our boys] play baseball, so we’ll be in Robinson playing baseball. We will not be here. We’re not planning on going to work that day, and several of our friends have said the same. And they’re not having school that day.

WACOAN: I’ve always heard that West is a tight-knit, caring community. How has that manifested itself for you?

Stephanie: We have never had to receive something [before]. But when you leave one night with a pair of underwear, a T-shirt and a pair of shorts because [you think] you’re coming home tomorrow, and you realize you’re not coming home and you have nothing. We were given to. It’s hard to talk about even now. We went to Walmart to buy some things, and people saw our West T-shirts and dropped a $50 gift card in our basket. People adopted our family. It’s very hard to accept things. At one point, we finally realized that we’ve helped people in need, and now it’s our time, and we are in need. It was hard, and I think a lot of families would say the same thing.

Steve: The outpouring and support from Central Texas was phenomenal. There were so many different agencies. School districts rallied to get our kids into Connally [ISD] that Monday after the blast. That’s almost unheard of. The blast occurs on Wednesday, and on Monday, they’re all going to school at Connally. We finished out our baseball season, and every school we played, they were raising money. We played Palmer [High School], and they brought all the kids hats and wrote scriptures on them. They all raised money for the school. Our boys are real good friends with a lot of kids from Midway. The Midway baseball team adopted them last year and brought them clothes and gave them gift cards. It was just incredible. We’ve never been on the receiving end. We’ve always helped other people. It’s very hard, and it’s very humbling. It just goes to show how many people really care. I was proud of Central Texas.

WACOAN: The first time I drove through West after the explosion, there were signs in yards from the Texas Baptist Men, Church of the Assumption and other groups that were helping.

Stephanie: There’s a group here this week from Iowa. There are still people coming to help.

Steve: The Texas Baptist Men, those people came up and gave us a sack lunch. They stood, and they prayed with us. Those people were phenomenal. They would drive through the neighborhood and say, ‘Whatever you need, just let us know.’ They were feet on the ground, working.

WACOAN: The day the house was bulldozed, were you here? What was that like?

Steve: All the memories from when we built it, it was hard. To me, it was very mixed feelings. We built this and all the memories we had here, and it was gone. It was just a clean slab.

Stephanie: One of our kids said, ‘This is where we grew up and had memories. We’ll just make new memories.’ My son put a picture on Instagram of all the rubble, and said, ‘She’s all gone. Can’t wait to be back on this street.’ The kids are very resilient. The kids have really shown more resiliency than the adults at times. I’m proud of the whole community of kids and how they have come together and been very positive.

WACOAN: Your neighbor Robbie Payne was in the blast and survived. Did you know others who perished?

Stephanie: One was a classmate of Steve’s, Buck Uptmor, and the Dallas firefighter, Luckey Harris, was a friend of our family.

WACOAN: Have you seen any positives come out of this whole tragedy?

Stephanie: So many. The fact that you appreciate every moment you’ve got. And I’ve seen so much of that with just people I work with even. When I leave work a lot of times, I don’t say, ‘See you tomorrow.’ I tell them I love them because I do. One woman is a dear friend who lives right across the railroad tracks here, about a half-mile out. We’re cubby neighbors at work. We hug every morning. We didn’t do that before. It [used to be] very important for me, when people came over, to have a clean house. After this happened, I never worry about my house. I’ve seen it at its absolute worst. People can come, and they better not expect me to clean it because I’m not going to.

WACOAN: How big was your previous house?

Stephanie: Square footage was 2,567, and it’s the same slab.

WACOAN: Did the pool survive?

Stephanie: It was icky. It was very nasty because there was no electricity. They drained it, and the same company that built the house came in and cleaned it up and replastered and put in new tile around the top.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Stephanie: We are just really blessed. Steve took two weeks off, and Baylor was very good to work with him at that time. My business was the same way. They gave us as much time as we needed. I took two weeks. That really allowed us the time to get our heads together. For the first few days, I couldn’t think. All I did was cry. Those two weeks, we were busy every day. You can ask anybody in this end of town — there has not been a down moment. You’re either cleaning something or talking to an insurance company or your mortgage company. It’s just constant. Very exhausting, actually.

Steve: One thing from this is make sure you have good insurance. We raised our insurance probably three or four years ago. If we would have had to rebuild this house, we couldn’t have built it for what we had it insured for. So, we upped it. It wasn’t quite what we needed to rebuild, but it was very close. We were blessed. In my profession (I’m in IT), we always talk about disaster planning. But when a disaster happens, you’re all over the place. When that happens, you have to rely on outside agencies and people to come in and do things for you. That was something that Central Texas did very well.

Photographs by Christina Kuhlmann and Kathleen Seaman