At the bar sits a weathered-looking Tanner Atwood, 24. He wears a black cowboy hat, scruffy goatee, his long dark hair pulled back. He's chain smoking and drinking beer, something he's been doing more of since the explosion. The night before, when he was unable to drive, the sheriff just took him home. He says he got to the nursing home before the cops did, but he won't talk about what he saw: "You don't want to know."
He grew up here but left for a while, a "hippy traveler," he says. He came back only two months ago and is working as an apprentice electrician in Waco.
Growing up, he swam in creeks, tried to stay out of trouble and was chased by farmers when he was caught crawfishing on their land. Kids could go anywhere on their bikes, still can; the only rule: Don't go past Czech Stop, or the interstate.
He worked at the pool and pumped gas at the Exxon full-service filling station off the tracks in town. A lot of closed-down stations still dot the area, remnants of when Main Street served as the highway between Dallas and Austin, before I-35 came through.
"It's about as down home as down home gets," he says of West. "The bar you're sitting in was the very first place I had a beer."
Sometimes he stops talking and just stares at his beer. It's Saturday, three days after the explosion, and he's only slept three hours since then. What he saw clearly weighs on him, but he says it hasn't hit him yet.
Honoring a legacy
The support for West comes not just from other Texans, not even just Americans; it's gone global.
Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic ambassador to the United States, sits inside The Village Bakery. Polka music plays out front and American, Texas and Czech Republic flags flap in the wind. This is the ambassador's second trip to West since his appointment in May 2011.
The honorary consul for the Czech Republic in Texas lives in West, and Gandalovic says he lost two cousins in the blast -- Donna's husband and brother-in-law. The ambassador is here to extend condolences to the town on behalf of the Czech Republic. He says in his home country, this story is the No.1 news item and tops social media discussions.
His goal is to identify a project the Czech Republic, and the people living there, can support. A way to help West. The Czech Republic announced Wednesday it will donate 4 million Czech crowns (approximately $200,000) to the town.
Beside the table where he sits is a guest book filled with messages. "God be with West," says one. "Prayers are coming from all over the world," says another. "Blessings to you and the people of West," says a third.
The walls of the bakery are lined with historical photos. They include one of a store that belonged to owner Mimi Montgomery Irwin's great-grandfather, "the first legitimate Czech merchant," she says. While others were farming, "he sent his cuffs and collars to Waco to be starched."
West pride courses through her. She wrote the town history for a book, "Historic McLennan County." She's a descendant of one of the first settlers who came to the area in the mid-19th century, decades before West was formally established in 1882. People came for the land and the agriculture. The railroad brought outsiders, including Czech immigrants who in many ways still define the place.
Walk down the streets of West and you'll see "Vitame vas!" in windows, welcoming you in the Czech language.
Montgomery Irwin's parents opened The Village Bakery in 1952. It was the first Czech bakery in Texas, became the "home of the kolache" -- a traditional pastry filled with fruit or spices -- and set West in a new direction. The success of the kolache, not to mention the traditional strudel, breads and other treats, got others in the business. More bakeries sprouted up. Restaurants began baking their own treats. Even the local Chevron announces on its sign, "Kolaches made fresh daily." The Texas state legislature declared the place "Kolache Capital of Texas."
"This was something ingenious they did," she says of her parents. "They created the market and, additionally, helped create West."
This legacy is the very reason she returned to West six years ago, after 25 years in New York, where she was a vice president of a marketing division at Macy's. After her father passed away and her recently deceased mother's health began to fade, Montgomery Irwin, 68, couldn't stomach the idea of their bakery closing or being sold. She is adopted, an only child, a divorced woman who says she owes her parents everything. The decision was easy.
She marvels at this place and its people. Here, a woman she knows as "Cindy at the bank," who came in for kolaches earlier, is also the Cindy who was working at West Assisted Living -- right near the nursing home -- and single-handedly evacuated its 15 residents. Here, the executive assistant for the county commissioner, a woman Montgomery Irwin says "knows where everyone is buried," volunteers to help run the bakery during this overwhelming time -- and manages to snag portable toilets and a water truck for this crippled part of town.
On this day, after closing, the shopkeeper encounters 30-year-old Sierra Shaw on Oak Street. Shaw, who sang with the Bold Springs Baptist Church choir at Montgomery Irwin's mother's Catholic funeral, races to embrace her friend.
Their hug, like so many others seen around town, seems to be tighter now and lasts longer.
Bells ring outside St. Mary's as people stream in for a standing-room-only Sunday Mass. Grown men, their arms folded across their chests, fight back tears. Couples reach for each other's hands. A man wraps his arms around his wife and daughter, who cries silently. A baby giggles, while another child in a hot pink tutu stands on her tippy toes to peer over a pew -- their innocence not yet lost.
At the corner of Main and Oak, insurance adjusters in crisp white shirts with logos mill about near their company banner. Disaster response and cleanup trucks find parking places. A police officer sits in his car off the busier-than-usual intersection. And a truck offering nonpotable water sits behind him on the train tracks, out of commission since the blast.
A few storefronts down Main, back at the Nors Sausage & Burger House, reporters tapping away on laptops are shooed from tables to make way for regulars, like the parents of one blast victim. They are embraced and then served before any others.