About 20 miles north of Waco lies a small Texas town with a close-knit population of just under 3,000 residents. These Texans are proud of their predominately Czech heritage and humble beginnings as a farming community with a profitable railroad depot.
Before April 17, 2013, few knew of this quintessential Texas town, but after the infamous explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. plant, the city of West no longer needs an introduction.
It has been a little more than four months since that tragic day, when the nation watched the flames throughout the evening and as the sun rose on horrific images of flattened homes and businesses and heard the news of 15 deaths, including many brave first responders who rushed to the scene.
Though the television cameras have long since packed up and moved on and the national spotlight is no longer on West, the community remains very much in a state of recovery.
Nonprofit groups and counseling centers are helping individuals process their loss and move forward. Construction crews are working to rebuild homes and businesses.
Earlier this month the Kucera family moved into the first fully rebuilt home in West.
In a year marked by tragedy and loss, a bright spot on the horizon is an annual event that brings together the entire community of West to celebrate their Czech heritage and traditions: Westfest.
The familiar faces, sounds and smells of this year’s celebration are sure to make it one of the most meaningful in the event’s history.
The Westfest planning committee has been working since October to plan the 38th Annual Westfest Czech & Polka Festival, which was hosted as it has been in past years on Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30 – Sept. 1. Traditionally drawing nearly 20,000 attendees organizers expected more attendees than ever this year. I for one am looked forward to joining visitors from across the state who be attended to show our support for this resilient community.
The event kicked off with the Friday Night Preview Party, where guests experienced music, dancing, food, and the Miss Westfest Contest. Saturday morning began as it always has, with a parade, featuring the newly crowned Miss Westfest, through the streets of downtown West. This year, the parade included a poignant tribute, as the first responders who died at the scene of the fertilizer plant explosion will be recognized as honorary marshals.
From the time the gates opened Saturday morning, festival-goers’ senses were inundated with Czech culture, from the sight of the West High Junior Historian Dancers dancing to Polka music to the taste of the traditional ethnic foods of sausage, strudel, and kolaches. Throughout the weekend, there was something for everyone, including a horseshoe and washers tournament, tractor pull competition, and kolache-baking contest.
During the Opening Ceremony, I had the privilege of presenting replacement military medals to longtime resident and former West Intermediate School Principal, Robert Fleming. An Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, Mr. Fleming had his seven military medals displayed in his office at the school, but all were lost in the explosion.
While Westfest is a celebration of this town’s traditions and heritage, this year’s festival was also a celebration of her future. As Texans we know our neighbors in West are a strong people who will persevere and emerge even stronger, and we will continue to stand with them every step of the way.
Senator Cornyn serves on the Finance and Judiciary Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.