Destination West: Kyle helps West students return after tragedy

Above are apartments in West that were destroyed by the fertilizer plant explosion. (photo by Larry Knapek, West News)

An SUV covered in dust says it all, as residents work to restore their school in time for Monday classes. (photo by Andy Sevilla)

West ISD employees help Kyle councilmember Samantha Bellows-LeMense unload school supplies in front of the West Elementary School. (photo by Andy Sevilla)

by ANDY SEVILLA

Biting her nails with anxiety, nervousness ever apparent in her gaze, she patiently waited for her turn to exit the interstate after almost three hours of travel.

Braving the traffic – at times down to a crawl, at times through country back roads – Kyle Council Member Samantha Bellows-LeMense was in a hurry Sunday to transport supplies to a ravaged small town in need of help. A lot of help.

“I’m nervous, I’m sorry,” she said as her car got closer and closer to West Elementary School, not knowing what damage to expect.

Just days earlier an explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked West, Texas, leaving at least 14 dead and about 200 injured, according to law enforcement reports. The town’s nearby middle school was reduced to rubble and its high school deemed useless after the damage it, too, had sustained.

“As citizens of West we are all in this together,” said Mayor Tommy Muska and the West City Council in a news release. “Long term recovery will take several months to years. We are working non stop to expedite processes and procedures for the health and safety of all our citizens.”

And a town left picking up the pieces is on its way to a return to normalcy, step-by-step, day-by-day, and Kyle is lending support.

Over the weekend, Kyle residents showed up at city hall with loads of donations – new toiletries, trash bags, school supplies, blankets, non-perishable foods, Gatorade, and bottled water – earmarked for West.

In a race against time, as soon as the donation drive was done at 3 p.m. Sunday, LeMense set out to West with school supplies in tow, as officials there were setting the stage for Monday morning classes, just five days after the blast left the town with only one school campus — West Elementary School.

The campus, which now, too, will serve fourth, fifth and sixth graders in the interim, on Sunday was undergoing last minute face-lifts, as volunteers erected portable buildings and collected much-needed supplies.

Emptying out the trunk of her Dodge Caliber, LeMense walked the hallways of West Elementary bearing bag after bag of – notebooks, pens, pencils, staplers, tape, folders, backpacks and a plethora of much needed school supplies – Kyle donations.

School officials with gleaming eyes and heartfelt smiles were thankful for the generosity that came from 140 miles away; LeMense holding back tears promised to return Monday with more supplies.

Officials said West Elementary would be without water for at least a week, though estimates range as long three weeks. Sandra Kettler, secretary to the school’s principal, said Sunday their campus had enough bottled water to last them a week, though resources had not yet been distributed to the Connally school district 15 miles to the south, where the older students would be bussed and schooled in a loaned building.

On Monday, LeMense said she returned to West Elementary with a carload of bottled water. Many more donations collected Saturday and Sunday at Kyle City Hall were en route Monday to the Waco Red Cross.

Dr. Marty Crawford, West schools’ superintendent, said in an early morning Monday email updating family and friends, “the west/northwest blast pattern of devastation is indescribable other than a combination of what you saw form (Hurricane) Katrina (in New Orleans), some of OKC (Oklahoma City bombing), and a little of pic(ture)s from Hiroshima. I am not embellishing. We are going to have a ton of housing, rebuilding, utility and logistical and psycho/social issues from that portion of our town for years to come, so pray for them.”

Cash donations and gift cards are still be accepted in West, as clothing items and other physical donations are overwhelming volunteers. Donations will be distributed through the school to local families. Donations can be made out to West ISD, c/o Sandra Kettler, 200 N. Harrison St., West, TX 76691

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