Texas town holds first Westfest since blast

WEST, Texas (AP) — The town of West has thrown open the annual celebration of its Czech heritage — the first Westfest since a deadly fertilizer plant explosion tore through the small Central Texas community.

The festival, which opened Friday and runs through Sunday, will proceed as usual this year with few reminders of the explosion that killed 15 people in April.

“We’ve had our memorials,” said Brian Muska, a West City Council member. “We want Westfest to be Westfest, and we want to celebrate what West is about.”

There will be a brief moment of silence, and first responders who died in the explosion will be recognized as honorary grand marshals in the Saturday parade, but organizers hope to stick to Westfest traditions that have stayed more or less the same for decades.

Attendees can listen to a polka band, watch traditional dances or try their hand at a kolache bake-off. There will also be plenty of sausages, beer-bread sandwiches, sauerkraut and pivo, Czech for beer.

“We certainly will always remember those who served their community well, but it’s about . celebrating the life of the community,” said John Hurtick, who has been president of Westfest since 1981.

The festival, in its 38th year, not only brings business to West, but it also serves as a nonprofit that reinvests in local organizations. Local groups apply for funding, and money made at the festival goes into a pool. Then the funds are given out to chosen applicants. Depending on the year, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 has been spread among community organizations, Hurtick said.

Past recipients have included the city, the fire department, youth baseball leagues, a gymnastics center and the Kiwanis Club, among others. Westfest also gives out several $1,000 scholarships.

“It’s very, very important for our town to have Westfest be successful,” said Mimi Montgomery Irwin, who owns the Village Bakery and is active in the Kiwanis Club. “This year, more than ever, it’s important that it be successful — not just from a monetary standpoint, but from a support standpoint.”

Organizers expect more than the usual 20,000-22,000 attendees.

Across town from the festival grounds, the devastated neighborhood around the fertilizer plant is slowly being transformed. Crews are still cleaning up the blast site.

Across the from the fertilizer plant, an apartment complex and a nursing home, where many people were rescued, have been leveled. Plans call for breaking ground on a 120-bed nursing home early next year across the street from the old one.




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