By DELANIA TRIGG, Register Staff Writer
While others watched TV or read Twitter and Facebook posts to follow news of Wednesday’s devastating explosion in West, NCTC Vice-President of Student Services Dr. Billy Roessler had a personal connection to the blast which leveled buildings and took the lives of at least a dozen residents of the city.
Roessler grew up in West — a town with a population of around 2,800 near Waco. He went to school there, has family members who live there and, as a farmer’s son, was familiar with the West Fertilizer Co.
He said none of his immediate family members were killed but a distant relative died in the blast.
The scope of the damage to the town he knows so well is difficult to grasp, he said.
“I did all my schooling in the West Independent School District,” he said. “The intermediate school that had the most significant damage is where I did sixth and seventh grade. It’s heart-wrenching.”
Most of Roessler’s relatives live within an eight-mile radius of the explosion.
“My mother said it sounded like thunder,” he said. “Her electricity was out for a few hours. A sister of mine lives within that eight-mile area and she really talked about the shaking.”
An Associated Press story indicated the force of the explosion registered as a small earthquake.
Roessler grew up on his family’s farm and said he was always aware of the danger of fertilizer components including anhydrous ammonia which is thought to have a played a role in Wednesday’s blast.
“My dad is a retired farmer and he went to that (fertilizer plant) to do business,” he said. “Growing up I knew the danger of fertilizer and anhydrous. I remember conversations about how you had to be careful about it. Even the vapors are extremely dangerous.”
Roessler said he doesn’t remember thinking of the West Fertilizer plant as a potential catalyst for a disaster.
“We probably had conversations about how the plant was right there and you just had to be careful,” he said. “The place has been there ever since I could remember.”
Roessler said during the spring season, the fertilizer plant likely contained fairly large quantities of chemicals.
“It’s the farm season right now with a lot of planting going on,” he said. “There was probably a substantial amount of fertilizer there.”
He said he first learned of the explosion when someone texted to ask if his family was okay.
He then began following Facebook to find out what was happening back home.
“I’m not a huge Facebook guru,” he said. “My wife usually does the Facebooking for the family. But I was tracking friends of mine, classmates. People were saying ‘Hey we‘re getting stuff together and heading up there with supplies.’ I had a busy evening. I got several emails from people who were concerned, wondering if my family was okay — which I appreciate. I sent an email out to about 15 people just saying my family was okay.”
Roessler attended the University of North Texas on a football scholarship and said a lot of the places where he practiced sports were in the direct line of the blast.
“The high school I attended was right next to the football field where they had the original triage,” he said. “Right between the school and the (railway) tracks was where I would practice shot and discus.”
Roessler said he can’t help thinking how close some of his family members came to annihilation.
“I was watching the news and I saw the intermediate school that had the most damage from the explosion,” he said. “They talked about if it had been five hours earlier children would’ve been there. If it had been during school hours, I would’ve had a nephew there. Even though my family live further out they could’ve gone to town for some reason, maybe to go to the store or something. They could’ve been there.”
He said he had planned to go to West to watch his niece participate in a church program. The event was postponed due to a church member’s death, he said.
Now he’s decided to wait a little while before returning to his hometown.
“I haven’t really set a date to go back yet,” he said. “With all the emergency responders still there and me not having any training in that area I don’t think there’s much I could do.”
Roessler said the aftermath of a tragedy always takes time to sink in.
“Wednesday evening as I was finding out what was happening, I was just thinking of more and more people who could be effected. In a moment, you think of a few and as time goes on you realize the large impact of the situation. A church member from where I grew up (lost his life.) I played baseball with him. I’m sort of anxious to find out more.”
Roessler said until Wednesday, his hometown was known to many as the “Kolache capital” of Texas.
“There’s a lot of people of German and Czech heritage there,” he said. “When I’d tell them I was from West they’d say, ‘Bring me back some kolaches.’”
Wednesday’s explosion is now a part of the city’s history and a reminder how fragile life is, he added.
“You think of all the people you only see at funerals and how you always say, ‘Let’s get together at other times besides funerals,’” he said. “When something like this happens, you realize how many people care about you. It feels good to know that.”