Sometimes the most eery sound is the hush of silence. This is exactly the sound health inspector and Salvation Army volunteer Paul Coghlin heard at the ground zero area in West, Texas.
“We stopped the car and you couldn’t hear anything but the wind blowing, a few birds chirping and tin dropping off of a roof every so often,” said Coghlin, “You would just see the curtains of homes blowing in the wind through the busted windows.”
The roads in West were covered by at least three inches of debris on the roads. As Coghlin’s group left the decimated neighborhood he could hear the crunching of glass underneath the wheels of their truck.
Many of the families and homes near the fertilizer plant were evacuated when the fire began lowering the number of fatalities, but not the number of homes lost. At least 75 homes were distroyed and almost every home had some type of damage.
“I don’t know how I would handle it,” said Coghlin, “You wake up one morning and all you have is the clothes on your back.”
Coghlin received the call to be on standby on April 17, the night the plant exploded, and traveled to West on April 20. He stayed for four days and returned to West Friday for another four days. While there he lends his time, energy and service to the residents of the small town.
Coghlin saw first hand the effects of the explosion and the decimation of much of the town, but also the phenomenal pulling together of a community and ultimately a state.
“There is no anger or complaining,” said Coghlin, “Just a community pulling together.”
Upon hearing of the explosion, towns, organizations and individuals began collecting donations and delivering them to the town. Volunteers, like Coghlin, took vacation time and traveled to West.
“Often it is 15 hour a day work,” he explained.
To begin with, Coghlin didn’t know if he wanted to go to West. After speaking with Karen Friend and hearing about others that were traveling, he decided to take the leap.
“If they jump off the cliff, I will and it was the best decision I could have made,” he said.
Coghlin didn’t know what to expect upon arrival, but said when he arrived people, cars and trucks were everywhere. Department of Public Services Officers and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were on sight looking to find a possible cause for the original fire and the subsequent explosion.
Coghlin spoke of the Salvation Army and those he was privileged to work with. The Salvation Army Disaster Services is set up similar to military with sergeants and lieutenant which lead the service. The food they cook is held to restaurant regulations.
Most of Coghlin's duties while on sight, included cooking food, serving food and water, giving out goods, helping workers and lending an ear for anyone who needed to talk.
“All of their food had to be destroyed,” said Coghlin, “it's a health code issue.”
The Salvation Army had several canteens on site. Coghlin spoke of a man who had approached the truck and asked for an item of food. The man said, “But I don’t have any money.” Coghlin told him that he had just enough then, because everything in the truck was free.
There was a family of 12 who had approach Coghlin, around three-forths were children and the Salvation Army had a bakery truck full of baked goods and candy that had been donated. He asked if he could give the children some of the candy, and the mother agreed. Before it was over, they had loaded up a box and the women was wondering if it was acceptable.
He told her, “Trust me, take what you want.”
The Salvation Army gives whatever they can when they can. There are no regulations or background checks explained Coghlin.
He spoke highly of the other organizations that were at the site including the Red Cross, the Baptist Men and several giving individuals. The Baptist Men are men who come out a help fix homes.
“They are a fantastic group of men,” Coghlin said.
He also recalled construction workers who advertised they had lumber and labor for anyone who needed to board up their windows, both were free of charge.
Two men from Dallas had driven to West to give away chopped pork. They had spent around $1,500 of their own money to ensure that the people in West could eat for free. There were also two cowboys from Cannon, Texas, who drove to West, set up a fire pit, and cooked and served 25 pork shoulders.
HEB had the disaster relief effort on site with their own portable kitchen, which Coghlin said you could eat of the floor. They also have a portable pharmacy that was on site filling prescriptions most of the previous week. It is staffed and manned by retired HEB staff.
The warehouse the Salvation Army has in West had only one row of goods when Coghlin arrived, but two days later it was filled to capacity with donated items.
“And 99.9 percent of those items were brand new,” said Coghlin.
Locally, Coghlin said that Brownwood dominates in giving.
Brownwood is so great at helping each other and those in need … I even saw the Howard Payne University bus there,” said Coghlin
He explained one of the most rewarding things was when a group of volunteers had been out working all day long and were sweating and tired. Coghlin had persuaded the group to let them bring food and water.
“We brought it out and these guys went crazy,” recalled Coghlin.
But not all stories were as heartwarming. He recalled an elderly man whose house had caved in on the man’s wife. She was flown to Waco and has a good prognosis, but their poodle died in the explosion.
Coghlin remembered the elderly gentleman saying, “I’m too old to rebuild.”
The volunteers on site didn’t just take care of the people at West, but the pets as well. They have dog food, dog treats and cat food in one of the catering trucks. Coghlin said one day he was loading up dog food and his lieutenant told him that he couldn’t just take the dog food, he had to take cat food as well. Coghlin joked he didn’t like cats.
“We do not discriminate against cats,” said his lieutenant, and Coghlin took the cat food, which he donated to an elderly lady with a cat named Lester.
Those who have been volunteering in West have worked to feed, clothe and help make the residents as comfortable as possible in this tragic situation. Coghlin said it was truly a sight to see everyone working together.
“I can’t say enough nice things about them,” said Coghlin.
While there in the coming weeks, he will continue to help feed and bring water to anyone in need.
“We’ve fed everybody, but the squirrels,” said Coghlin, “We would have fed them too if we had found any.”