Boots are among the items donated to West, Texas, residents coping in the… (Ron T. Ennis, Associated…)
WEST, Texas — At the Veterans of Foreign Wars post just a few blocks past City Hall here, the donated mattresses form a stack that nearly touches the ceiling.
Rows of folding tables are piled high with clothes, and the porch out back has enough water bottles to hydrate an army. That's just Saturday's haul.
And the first thing visitors hear when they step inside: "You hungry?"
PHOTOS: Texas explosion
The smoky scent of barbecue wafted through the room, as did the smell of meatloaf fresh off the grill. Anybody was welcome to fix a plate.
"Southern hospitality, man," said George Hykel, 55, a West native. "We're in Texas. Everyone in Texas is a family."
Three days earlier, a fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant on the outskirts of town killed 14 people and injured scores more — leveling houses and prompting neighborhood evacuations.
As West, population 2,800, struggles to recover from the tragedy, the city has been buoyed by the extraordinary generosity of fellow Texans, some of whom drove hundreds of miles to drop off donations. People have delivered coats, pants, dresses, hobby horses, shoes, blankets, diapers and, this being Texas, boots.
The investigation into the cause of the blast continues. Donald Adair, owner of the West Fertilizer Co., said in a statement that he would never forget the "selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us," adding that a plant employee was also killed responding to the fire.
West Fertilizer Co. explosion: Before and after
Authorities were restricting access to the areas devastated by the explosion, though some residents have been allowed into those neighborhoods. For hours Saturday, residents lined up in their cars near a community center that has been a hub for relief efforts. There they got access passes — numbers written on their windshields with what appeared to be white shoe polish. They then drove to a checkpoint, where they were allowed to pass through for brief stays.
"We just want to get home," said Pete Arias, one of many residents tired of waiting.
One woman leaving the restricted area carried a black plastic garbage bag filled with clothes rescued from a washing machine. The garments had been in the machine since Wednesday night, when the explosion rocked the town.
Brandi Cvikel, 17, was among those allowed back into her neighborhood, and was surprised by what she saw. In some parts of town, entire walls of structures were sheared off by the blast. In Cvikel's neighborhood, most homes had their windows blown out.
But at Cvikel's house, the windows were intact.
"It was a lot better than I expected," she said. "For the most part it looks normal until you go inside."
Inside she discovered that frames had fallen off the walls, and the entire house appeared to be tilted. Cabinets were pulling away from the wall and ceiling.
As life in the town has come to a standstill, some — like Hykel, who said he lost eight friends Wednesday night — are coping by getting to work. His home was spared, save for a few busted windows, but he's hardly been there. He's busy down at the VFW or helping out friends.
The tragedy has also drawn back West natives who had moved away.
"I had to be here," said Carla Ruiz, who now lives in Austin. "I couldn't not be here. You have to be here for family."
Daniel Zahirniak, who grew up in West, said town residents had learned to rely on themselves and each other. "Everybody takes care of everybody," he said, "and they still do."
He said that friends in San Antonio, where he lives now, tried to load up his truck with supplies, but he told them to wait until he learned what was needed. One friend in construction even offered to send his work crews — and a bulldozer.
The town has also seen hordes of volunteers from around the state and donations by the truckload. Hykel said he was expecting about half a dozen 18-wheelers hauling building supplies to come in from Alvin, hundreds of miles away in southeast Texas. One lumberyard owner promised Hykel as much wood as the city needed.
The lobby of the bank downtown is stuffed with rolls of paper towels and boxes of snack food. Food, in fact, seems to be everywhere. Texas observes the tradition of comfort food when it comes to tragedy: Cook something and bring it over.
There's barbecue at the VFW, Czech pastries (a nod to the heritage of many town residents) and Tex-Mex. As people waited to get permission to return to their homes, volunteers walked up to their cars offering bottles of water and brisket sandwiches.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton told reporters that West had "hit the saturation point."
"We're running out of places to put it," he said.
But, locals say, that's just how people respond in small towns, and especially in Texas. When people get sick or need help, they'll have benefits to raise money for the family. Maybe make a casserole.
And when wildfires burned through the central Texas city of Bastrop last year, people in West pitched in donations. "What goes around comes around," Mayor Tommy Muska said of the support.
"It's crazy, just crazy," Hykel said of all the aid. "And we appreciate every bit of it. If it happened to them, we'd do the same thing."