Emotions flow from West: Small-town tragedy affects Texas State athletes, supporters
No matter how hard Texas State sophomore Garrett Mattlage tried to concentrate in last weekend’s games at San Jose State, he couldn’t.
“I was so scatterbrained that it’s a wonder that I played decent,” Mattlage said. “I probably couldn’t recall what happened Friday or Saturday.”
Mattlage, just like Bobcat softball player Brooke Keel, is from West. That’s where the West Fertilizer Co. plant exploded April 17, killing 15 and injuring 200 more.
West is a classic small town, with less than 3,000 people inside its limits according to the 2010 census. Each of those people, however, has a never-ending pride in their town that had been most known for the Czech Stop until eight days ago.
“Don’t mess with the Czech Stop,” Mattlage said. “It’s unbelievable, if you haven’t been there. That’s been our landmark, but that’s obviously changed now.”
Last Wednesday’s explosion did more than level the plant. It destroyed property — as the shockwave spread across multiple city blocks — and affected lives.
“It’s such a small town and we’re all intertwined,” Mattlage said. “Even though my personal house wasn’t damaged, I still felt like my home was destroyed.”
While Mattlage’s home stood five miles from the plant, Keel and her family weren’t as lucky. Keel’s house, which has since been declared uninhabitable, was less than 500 feet from the blast site.
Once Keel received word from a family member via text, she got in contact with her mom, who’d been in Austin. They traveled north and met her father in a Waco hospital, where he was treated after being knocked unconscious by the blast and having received 30 stitches.
“I didn’t realize how serious it was until I saw my dad and the rest of the patients,” Keel said. “Hugging my dad was the best feeling in the world.”
Keel spent the next five days around her hometown, volunteering at one of several donation spots that overflowed with generosity.
Empathy for West wasn’t just reserved for that area, as Texas State held a fundraiser throughout Tuesday’s baseball game against Texas A&M. Fans contributed more than $2,500 to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Prior to the Bobcats’ 4-1 win over the Aggies, Heath Harris threw out the first pitch which his best friend (Mattlage) caught. Harris’ father, Dallas-Fire Rescue Captain Kenny ‘Lucky’ Harris, died in the explosion.
“We grew up doing stuff like that (playing catch),” Mattlage said. “We were always on the same team and always going over to each other’s houses. Of course, ‘Lucky’ would always be there with my dad. It was a really big deal to be out there.”
Even though permanent scars remain from the explosion, Texas State head coach Ty Harrington said Tuesday was meant to provide a “good feeling.”
“It’s been really rough on those guys,” Harrington said. “I’ll tell you this: That’s a badass town. I grew up around it. They’re tough people. They’re resilient people.”
As each day passes and more and more of West is reopened to its residents, they’ll continue to pull together to create a stronger bond.
“We’re going to rebuild it bigger and better,” Keel said. “It’s going to be a long road, but we have each other and that’s all we need.”