When the fertilizer explosion ripped through the town of West five years ago tonight, many residents, after the smoke had cleared, had one big fear: would the schools that bind the town together be rebuilt, or would West itself be destroyed by the massive explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town, including its showpiece 1920s era high school.
Those fears were resolved less than a month ago when a team led by San Antonio's Bartlett-Cocke General Contractors rededicated the old school, which suffered major damage in the blast.
"One of the things that we sort of lose sight of being urban Texans is that schools are your community," said Scott Stites, Bartlett-Cocke's Central Texas pre-construction manager, who supervised the major reconstruction effort.
"It's your neighbors, it's your friends, it's your family, and when your school is gone, you have lost a big chunk of what your community is."
The buildings, which were built in the 1920s and 1950s, will now house administrative offices. The West ISD opened a new Junior-Senior High School in 2016, and hopes to float a bond issue to build a new elementary school. West's population, which fell sharply after the April 17, 2013 explosion, began to rise in 2016, due largely to the signal that the intensive rebuilding effort.
Stites says he was approached by numerous West High School graduates at the dedication, who wanted to thank him for respecting the historic nature of their school.
"They said the project spoke to the fact that there was a future in West," he said. "They were taking the first big steps in getting past that tragedy which took their friends and family away from them."
Many of the walls in the building have been left unpainted, to become a lasting show of the community's strength and resilience.
IMAGE: BARTLETT-COCKE GENERAL CONTRACTORS