Shortly after a fertilizer plant explosion rocked the town of West, Texas, in April, 70-year old Johnny Trlica was wandering the streets when he heard the yells of 14-year-old Chelsea Reed, trapped in the debris of her own home. Despite his frailty, he somehow managed to pull the girl out.
“I’ll never forget him saying he couldn’t just ignore her screaming, and he couldn’t believe he picked up 120 pounds,” said Diane Parma, Chelsea’s grandmother.
Trlica died shortly after the explosion from causes unrelated to the disaster. But he will forever remain in the hearts of Parma and her family, whose story is one of hope and provision in the face of calamity.
Parma owns Al’s Cleaners in downtown West, where homemade T-shirts, flags and banners hang inside, sporting the motto “Rise Up” and other inspirational phrases.
Patrons stand in line as Parma pulls laundry from the back of the cleaners and brings it to each customer, whom she knows by name. Because of her smile and encouraging conversation, no one would know that six months ago, she experienced tragedy just like many others in the town when the blast rocked her home and destroyed her daughter’s house.
When Parma’s daughter, Stefanie Reed, walks into the store, it is a momentous occasion. Like many residents, her house was destroyed. But she has chosen to stay in West because it is her home. Every day she drives around to view the progress of her community, and today is one without tears, one of hope.
“It’s the first time I haven’t cried,” Reed tells her mother of her drive through the town that day.
Parma encourages her daughter as she does others who walk through the cleaners’s door. But her smile does fade a little when she recounts the day the explosion shook the town.
On April 17, Parma wasn’t feeling well. She and her husband, Gary, just had new windows installed in their home, and she opened them that morning, hoping the fresh air would do her good. Little did she know, her simple act would save her home from being destroyed.
From their house, the couple could see dark black clouds of smoke in the distance.
“I thought it was the high school, the plant, the something…. I was out in the driveway, looking back … and I saw the smoke,” she said.
Parma and her husband moved their cars down the street, thinking an explosion on the train tracks might happen. Then they went inside to call Reed, who lived 10 blocks down the street.
While the husband was on the phone with Reed, the plant blew up.
The Parmas were shaken up, and their home turned into what Parma calls a “gravity house” because they couldn’t determine which way was up or which way was down. But because the windows were open that day, the air pressure in the house decreased and saved it from being blown to pieces.
Meanwhile, Stefanie lay on the ground of her own home, cut from the waist down. She had been looking outside of the door, talking to Gary when the explosion went off.
When she fell down, she covered her daughter, Mikayla, who suffered only a knot on her head. Fortunately, neither of them sustained any major injuries.
At the back of the house, Stefanie’s other daughter, Chelsea, was trapped, and the town was in too much chaos to help. But because of Trlica’s incredible act, 14-year old Chelsea made it out to join her mother and sister.
Now six months later, Parma is filled with optimism for the future.
When she leaves work for her daily tour of her home in progress, Parma passes hand-painted stars staked into yards, attached to light poles and pinned to fences. These stars are a great reminder that the town will “Rise Up” from the literal ashes.
The Stars of Hope, an organization that brings wooden cutout shapes to sites of disasters, has been a dramatic encouragement for the town.
“It was one of the best things allowed here. To me, it was very uplifting to go through neighborhoods and see the stars,” Parma said. “We had one in our yard that said faith, which meant a lot to me because I’m a Christian. Now, we are building our home, and we saved it. It’s very special to me.”
When Stars of Hope arrives in a town, the organizers encourage people to paint personal or generic uplifting messages on a star. Bonnie Walts, Parma’s daughter-in-law, went to this decorating event.
“Myself and my five-year-old, Logan, went that day…. It was something good, especially having a younger child you couldn’t shield from all the devastation that happened. It was great to get together with other moms and just take a breather for the kids,” she said.
Builders have made progress not only on Parma’s home, but structures all over the town. Though things will never be the same, the community has found its footing once again.
Jeanette Sulak, who works at the local drugstore, said, “When I see Diane, her face just lights up…. I can already see her smile more relaxed as her house is taken care of.”
So much has changed in the Czech community. While many people have evacuated the town for good, most have chosen to stay and rebuild.
Looking back to the disaster renews old grief, but Parma believes it is now a part of the town. She put together what she calls an “explosion box,” a collection of memories which she keeps from that day.
“It’s amazing what gives us strength…. We were well-blessed, though some were not. It hurts us, but it’s encouraging to see the blue building permits,” she said. “The West people are choosing to rebuild.”
Al’s Cleaners, owned and operated by Parma’s family for 27 years, keeps a sign in the store window that reads, “Thank you! Johnny Trlica ‘Our Hero’ 4-17-13.”
Parma said, “I really believe that he had one more angelic deed to do before hid time here was over. I will never forget him.”