As noncareer firefighters, the thirty members of the West Volunteer Fire Department expected to have their work schedules upended,their dinners interrupted, and maybe for a little smoke to get in their eyes. What they didn’t expect was to face the greatest disaster their town had ever seen—and to lose some of their own.
Although the city of West sits just off Interstate 35, on a stretch twenty miles north of Waco that is saturated with harried drivers, the town itself is tranquil. A couple of blocks from the highway, past the public elementary school and the 1912 yellow-brick city hall, a set of raised railroad tracks offers a view of West’s small, historic downtown, where on late afternoons the city’s relaxed rhythm is apparent. At Sam’s Barber Shop, Sam Pinter is usually sweeping the hair off the floor and tidying the combs and clippers. Around the corner, the night-shift bakers at the Village Bakery are starting to make kolaches in the cavernous back room, while locals begin to trickle in at the Czech-American Restaurant (“Home of the original Czech fries”) and Nors Sausage and Burger House, where they know to order the spicy link with a side of sauerkraut.