orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

State News

April 22, 2013

School resumes in tiny Texas town hit by blast

WEST — Teachers waited outside Monday morning like it was the first day of school in this tiny Texas town, hoping that a welcoming handshake or pat on the shoulder would make up for the fact that nothing else was normal.

Five days after a massive blast at a local fertilizer plant killed 14 and ripped many of West's families from their homes, some students attended class in trailers behind damaged school buildings, while others were bused out of the city to once-abandoned campuses.

"They're aggravated. They're disappointed," Nickole Hayes said as she dropped her three daughters at a car dealership that served as a temporary bus stop. "They know they have to go back, but there's not a good way to be uprooted again."

Some parents took the day off to walk or drive their children to school. Classmates who hadn't seen each other for a few days talked and laughed — with dozens of reporters and TV cameras chronicling their arrival.

"I'm just glad to get back to our routine," said 14-year-old Sofia Guerra, sitting in the car Monday morning with her mother, Erika, as they dropped her sister off at West Elementary School.

"It's unknown," she added. "We don't know what to expect."

Dozens of homes in the city of 2,700 people were damaged in Wednesday's explosion at West Fertilizer Co., and part of the town remains off limits. Authorities said Monday they are conducting a "slow and methodical" search of the site. And West Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek said restoring water and natural gas to the town could take weeks.

Counselors were in each classroom and available separately for students still dealing with the emotions of the blast — almost everyone in the town knew someone killed, hurt or displaced. Some teachers who reported to work Monday had not been home since the blast, said Jan Hungate, assistant superintendent at West Elementary.

Her school had its normal bunch of pre-K through sixth-graders, but also set up trailers behind the building for intermediate students. Middle-and high-school students were bused from the dealership to a spruced-up vacant school in neighboring Connally district.

West and Connally are rivals — or were until Wednesday night. Connally got to work almost immediately, as volunteers and staff painted hallways, scrubbed floors and stocked classrooms with supplies. Signs were planted along the route to the building: "Welcome West Trojans."

"To start school, they are ready," said Wesley Holt, a Connally district spokesman.

Holt said they also placed binders, notebooks and pens on each desk. Other districts donated furniture, and a food-service company prepared the cafeteria, he said.

"We honestly had to ask people to stop sending school supplies," Hungate said.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said state officials have offered to waive end-of-year tests and other requirements as needed. Hungate said the district was considering several options on testing.

Chad Rizo, father of 7-year-old Hunter, took the day off to walk his son to school. Rizo said his mother-in-law and several friends lost their homes and belongings.

While his son was excited to go to school with older friends, Rizo said the outside media attention would need to subside before things could return to normal.

"When West is left to clean up, that's going to hit home for a lot of people, I think," he said.

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