WEST, Texas – Reagan Uptmore is 17 years old and has worked in the big barn behind the West auction building south of town for as long as he can remember.
That’s where he was Wednesday evening when he heard the boom.
It had been cloudy most of the day, so Uptmore thought it was a storm.
Then he realized it wasn’t raining.
“I thought lightning hit [the barn],” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait, it hasn’t even rained yet.’ It was about to, but it didn’t.”
What Uptmore saw next nearly scared him off the gate he was standing on.
The West Fertilizer Co. plant on the other side of town had exploded. Uptmore could see the plume of smoke from the auction barn several miles away.
The blast and its aftermath have overwhelmed this farming community of 2,800. The official death toll reached 14 by Friday afternoon when the search and rescue phase had finished, Gov. Rick Perry said at a news conference.
In total, 200 injuries have been reported while 150 buildings have been destroyed, according to numbers released by the Department of Public Safety on Friday morning at the auction grounds, where local and national news outlets had converged on the dusty parking lot, creating a makeshift media center just off Interstate 35.
But even with the search operations completed, roads leading to the explosion site remained blocked off by state officials late Friday night. Some residents haven’t seen their homes since before the blast on Wednesday.
Gladys Quilter, a West resident who lives in the restricted area, said she was told Friday it could be up to five days before the streets are re-opened. Evelyn Pareya, whose home was “totally destroyed,” said she heard a similar timetable.
According to early reports from state officials, it appears there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about letting citizens return to the area.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who surveyed the town from a helicopter Thursday afternoon, called the scene “disturbing.” Earlier that day, McClennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon said the area was “devastated” and described it at the time as a “volatile situation.”
And even for those like Uptmore who were a distance from the explosion and whose homes weren’t damaged, the shock of the blast was unsettling.
“I looked, and I crawled up on the gate and said ‘Oh my God,’” Uptmore said Thursday. “My two friends came up to me and said the fertilizer plant blew up. I said, ‘No, you’re joking. You’re full of it,’ because that’s what we do around here. We’re full of it. And I looked and said, ‘Y’all ain’t joking.’”
Uptmore’s mind raced at the time. He immediately called his mother and his sisters. They were safe, and their home north of the explosion site was intact.
But even with his immediate family accounted for, Uptmore wasn’t immune to tragedy.
His uncle, Buck Uptmore, was missing. He had been fighting the fire before the explosion. Reagan and his family eventually found out that Buck, and several other people close to Reagan, was killed.
“I knew all those [firemen]. It’s like family, you know. Everybody in West is like family,” he said. “I used to go over to [Buck’s] house all the time. He was a good man.”
Across town Wednesday night, Jason Lucier, 15, was at church when his grandmother called. His house was gone.
“My grandma called me and said my house exploded,” Lucier said. “I was thinking, ‘What do I come home to?’ My house is nothing.”
Lucier spent the night at a Best Western.
“I never thought something like this would have ever happen in a little town like this,” Lucier, a freshman at West High School, said.
Grant Zahirniak wore a ball cap and a brown jacket and watched the television trucks take over the parking spaces downtown Thursday night.
The 21 year old, who has lived in West his entire life, felt the blast Wednesday night at his home about three miles from the plant.
“You could hear it and feel the shake,” he said. “My house started rattling, the doors, the windows.”
The blast didn’t do any damage to Zahirniak’s home, but the same couldn’t be said for many other homes and buildings closer to the fertilizer plant.
“It’s miserable,” Zahirniak said. “Yesterday, before 7:50 [p.m.], they were perfectly fine. In a matter of minutes, they were gone.”
Zahirniak said the explosion’s physical effect on the town – the loss of homes and property – began to sink in as Thursday wore on.
But the emotional damage of losing friends is something he and others are still trying to overcome.
“That still hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “Stayed up late last night, went to sleep, woke up this morning and still just thought it was a dream. I can’t believe it.”
Allen Ballew lives 10 miles west of the explosion, but he drove to the auction barn Thursday night looking for any information he could find.
The night of the blast, Ballew sat in an Applebee’s in Columbus, Neb. and watched the West High School football field turn into a triage center.
“See that field right there?” Ballew told the bartender. “I played football on that field.”
Ballew, 41, builds scrap metal processing machines and was in Nebraska for business when his aunt called him about the explosion at the West fertilizer plant.
“I thought it was a joke,” Ballew said Thursday night.
Ballew left for Texas first thing in the morning, pulling into town around 9 p.m. He doesn’t have kids and he’s not married, but he does have family and friends in and around West, and he grew up in the area.
His girlfriend told him the blast knocked her off her feet. She suffered wounds to the right side of her body, Ballew said. His cousin’s apartment complex collapsed.
No other members of Ballew’s family were injured, but that wasn’t his only concern as he bolted down from Nebraska on Thursday.
Like other locals, Ballew was a steady customer at the plant, which had been a fixture in the town for nearly 50 years. He also worked welding jobs there.
He feared for the safety of the workers, many of whom he knows personally.
“They were off, but by the time the fire started and the explosion happened, that was plenty of time for any of them to go back up there and check on it,” Ballew said.
He could only speculate.
But as the parking lot outside darkened and the hum of the TV trucks quieted late Thursday night, Ballew stood in the lobby of the auction building with heavy eyes and came to a sobering conclusion.
“This could be a pretty big blow to this town,” he said.
Maybe, though, this isn’t how it ends for the tiny town once famous only for its Czech Stop kolaches.
Maybe the spirit of Buck Uptmore and the others killed by the blast doesn’t fade into the sky like the smoke from the explosion, drifting away into the dark and quiet.
Reagan sure won’t be the one to let that happen.
“They were trying to put out the fire,” he said. “If there’s something going wrong in West, everybody tries to help. They were just trying to help and moved in at the wrong time.”
Reagan already has a plan to preserve Buck’s memory.
The Uptmores are rodeo cowboys. Buck rode bulls. Reagan does, too.
Sometime soon, probably after the initial shock of the explosion passes and the town re-establishes some semblance of normalcy, Reagan will write Buck’s name across his bull-riding vest. He’ll put it on and when he lowers himself into the chute he’ll think of his uncle. He’ll remember who Buck was and how he was a good man, because good men help others and Buck died helping others.
Then he will nod and the gate will open and he will ride again.