WEST, Texas — On Wednesday, the city West took a difficult step forward in its recovery and began tearing down dozens of homes damaged by a fertilizer plant explosion here six weeks ago. Judy Grusendorf wept as she watched a backhoe chew through her childhood home. Her parents built the small ranch-style house in 1961 and have lived in it ever since.
“Just seeing it come down and thinking about the memories that were made from us growing up,” she said through her tears as the walls collapsed in a cloud of dust. Her 84-year-old father was home at the time of the blast and was cut by flying glass.
“I knew (something happened) when I found all this blood running here and all down my back,” Ross Bohannan said, pointing to his arm.
Their home was one of several that were torn down Wednesday in the town’s first round of widespread demolition. As investigators still search for the explosion’s cause, the town began bulldozing at least 100 homes in the blocks surrounding the former plant.
“It’s time to move forward now and no longer look at the rubble of what was our homes,” said Phil Emmicke, associate pastor of West First Baptist Church. The church is organizing and paying for the demolition of 50 homes.
Emmicke realized in the days after the explosion that the survivors’ biggest need was help with demolition. Bulldozing a house can cost up to $20,000. Yet, as homeowners learned, insurance doesn’t always cover all the costs needed to fully rebuild. By saving money on demolition, church leaders figure, more people would be willing to rebuild.
“This gives them the money, hopefully the money they need, to say maybe I really can make it work and rebuild and stay in West,” said the church’s senior pastor John Crowder.
Volunteers are doing much of the work on donated equipment. The church is relying on donations to cover the $200,000 cost of removing the debris. The homeowner doesn’t pay a dime.
“If we can provide that hope and give people the chance to start over again,” Crowder said, “then our city has a chance.”
Some homeowners were wary of investing money into their homes if neighbors didn’t –– or weren’t able –– to do the same. Town leaders worried damaged homes with shattered windows open to the elements could drag down neighborhoods and scare off investment.
“They’d still be sitting here, because they can’t afford to tear them down,” volunteer Butch Moore said of the damaged homes. His group, Texas Baptist Men, is helping coordinate the demolition.
“The next step in these guys’ life is getting these houses gone… so they can come back here and rebuild.”
Yet letting go of their home is a difficult choice for many –– including the church pastor. As he coordinated the demolition, Crowder’s own house will need to come down. The home stands but the shock buckled the wall and collapsed the ceiling. Repairing the single-story brick home would cost too much.
“When you see your home scarred like that, it almost feels like a part of you has been injured,” he said outside his home- only a half a mile from the plant. Crews will tear it down in the morning.
“It’s not easy,” he said, his voice strained with emotion, “but it’s important. It’s important for my family. It’s important for my community… We’re ready to move forward.”