Four months after a fertilizer plant explosion tore through their small Texas community, killing 15 people and damaging buildings for blocks around, the West Trojans opened their football season and recovered a degree of normalcy that's been missing since the blast.
The high school field, which became a triage site after the April 17 blast in the community 100 miles south of Dallas, was replanted and repainted for the game against the Little River-Academy Bumblebees. Few Texas traditions are as celebrated or mythologized as high school football under the lights, but Thursday night's kickoff held particular significance for West's roughly 2,800 residents, who have endured months of struggle and uncertainty.
"Everyone is just really excited that we can do normal things like go to football games, when just a couple of months ago we were hurting so badly," high school English teacher Chelsey Lauer said before the game.
The home stands were packed with excited Trojan fans, including many who attended a pep rally earlier in the day that included former Baylor coach Grant Teaff and a Czech-themed dance group, in a nod to West's immigrant roots more than a century ago.
Red-clad Trojan players slapped their teammates' backs like drummers during the final notes of the National Anthem, and generations of West graduates raised their right index fingers in the air while the band played the school song.
"From here to now, we didn't even know if we were going to see a first game," said Monique Hardin, whose nephew plays cornerback for the Trojans.
"God spared me and the rest of us to live this day," she said.
The blast destroyed parts of three schools, including the high school. Immediately after the blast, hundreds of students had to be bused more than 10 miles away to another school district. Officials in West repeatedly said they wanted to get classes in August back in town, even if they didn't have permanent buildings.
School resumed this week in three 10-classroom buildings connected by wooden walkways. Lunch is in a portable cafeteria. More portable classrooms are still being trucked in and installed. A power outage Thursday in some classrooms meant students had to be moved out of hot classrooms into the gym, Lauer said.
"I think that we all know that this is an odd time, and we're trying to make the best of moments like that," she said.
The Trojans have been practicing on the track of where one wrecked school building once stood next to West Fertilizer. Both the school and the plant have been demolished.
"Not one complaint, though," said assistant superintendent Jan Hungate. "They were just happy to be here. We can learn a lot from the kids. They've been so resilient."
The signs of rebuilding are evident everywhere in town. A handful of new houses are almost ready for families to move in. Dozens of wrecked homes that had curved walls and spray-painted messages on the front are gone, leaving empty gravel lots waiting to be rebuilt.
The decision by federal officials to reverse their earlier denial of major emergency aid means millions of dollars are expected to flow into West, allowing town and school officials to rebuild water lines and buildings.
The finished product is years away. On Thursday, students and fans of the Trojans were focused on seeing their team back on the field and trying to beat Little River-Academy.
"It's big, not only because we're overcoming adversity," Hungate said. "It's school spirit, and that happens no matter what kind of building you're in."