The fire and massive explosion at a fertiliser plant in the small Texas town of West has flattened dozens of homes and left untold numbers of people dead – casualty figures haven’t been released as many are still trapped in the wreckage of their homes. The disaster is being followed closely here in the Czech Republic – the town was settled by Czech immigrants in the 19th century, and some three quarters of the population are of Czech origin.
A video camera caught the moment that a high pressure tank at the West Fertilizer company exploded, producing a pressure wave that flattened homes in the surrounding area, so powerful it was picked by the US Geological Survey. Fire-fighters were tackling a blaze at the plant when the tank, containing thousands of litres of a toxic fertilizer called anhydrous ammonia, exploded. The mayor of West Tommy Muska – himself an auxiliary fireman – described the moment on CNN’s Piers Morgan programme:
“I’m a member of the Fire Department as well, so I was on the way to the fire. I had just turned the corner about three blocks, two and a half blocks away, and it blew up. I’ve just never seen an explosion like that. A ball of fire went up and it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Big old mushroom cloud.”
Like much of West’s population, Mayor Muska is of Czech origin – a descendant of the Czech immigrants who arrived in the 19th century, escaping poverty and in some cases political oppression in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today the town – population 2,700 – has a hotel called the Czech Inn, a gas station called Zatopek Oil, and a Little Czech Bakery, which makes authentic Czech cakes called koláče, or kolaches to anglicise the word. Author and former journalist Brendan McNally, who grew up in Dallas but lives in Pelhřimov with his Czech wife and family, says the kolaches have put West on the map:
“Anytime anyone drove down to Austin, you always stopped at West to get kolaches. Because it’s the only place in Texas where you can get real kolaches, and everybody’s aware of that. You want a real Czech kolache, you go to West. And everybody stops there.”
And this is a tiny place, 3,000 inhabitants, farming community.
“Oh yeah, 3,000 inhabitants, but it weighs very large in the Texan mentality. The Czech population in Texas is no longer really substantial, just from a historic basis, but through the 20th century and really since 1848, the Czechs were enormously influential. There was a Czech radio station operating until just a few years ago, operating in Czech.”
Tell me a bit about West. Describe it for me.
“It is a lovely little town. Very prosperous and very nice. Everybody’s got a Czech last name it seems. There are a lot of other people there. We went to a festival there and a whole bunch of Mexicans were there but they all had a strong Czech connection, they all had Czech friends.”
So I imagine the impact of a disaster like this on a small town would be huge.
“Well it sounds like the town’s half wiped out. It’s not that big – you’ve got five or six city blocks destroyed, I mean that’s…I’m sure it will rebuild but that is going to be catastrophic.”
The Czech ambassador to the United States Petr Gandalovič is currently on his way to West to see what assistance he can provide and report back to Prague. The Czech authorities and the media are closely watching the latest news from this little outpost of Czech life in Texas.