Many things have changed, but prom remains the same at West High School


Shweta Gulati

Cordell Clark (left) and Lauren Wernet are seniors at West High School, which currently exists as portable buildings because of the plant explosion that destroyed the old school building. 

Hannah Smothers

WEST — One day before the anniversary of the West fertilizer plant explosion, Lauren Wernet, a senior at West High School, picked her red nail polish, left over from prom, off her fingernails.

Wernet has been to three prom dances, but her senior prom last Saturday was her favorite — even though it couldn’t be held in the high school she attended for almost three years. The prom, held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in West, was a Great Gatsby-inspired, 1920s soiree. 

Wernet picked her dress to match the theme.

“It was black — sparkly all the way down,” Wernet said. “The cut was right here on one side. I had red heels and silver jewelry. And I did my own makeup, and I had my hair done. I decided to go elegant this year.”

Last year, on Saturday, April 13, prom guests enjoyed the last big event the old school building, which was located a few hundred yards from West Fertilizer Company, would hold. Four days later, the school was destroyed in the blast from the plant.

Many residents in the small town lost homes, cars, pets and other belongings in the explosion. For the junior class, the loss included traditions such as a senior hallway, senior pranks and energetic pep rallies in their old gym.

“I wish I could go back and just walk the halls one more time,” Wernet said. “If I had known what was gonna happen, what we know now, I would go back. I’d give anything to go back to that place and walk the halls one more time.”

The week after the explosion, the students of West resumed classes with their former rivals at Connally Independent School District in Waco. 

“When we got there that day, first day of school, they had the whole school decorated with [West’s slogan] ‘Home of the Trojans’ — all the Connally kids did that,” said Jan Hungate, chief administrative officer of West ISD.

The junior high and high school students whose buildings were destroyed by the blast were bused to Connally every day for the last six weeks of the 2012-2013 school year. According to Hungate, attendance the first few days back was higher than average.

“The commissioner of education said, ‘You’re going to probably want to apply for a waiver for attendance when y’all start back,’ and I said, ‘No, no, I don’t think I will,’” Hungate said. “We had 96 percent attendance, and the next day we had 98 percent. More than normal.”

Almost every administrator, teacher and counselor around the West campus described the students as resilient, although the return wasn’t easy.

“I’m going to be honest — I didn’t want to go,” Wernet said. “But after a few days, I was like, ‘Wow, I really needed this.’ I needed to go back and make sure my friends were OK.”

West High School senior Cordell Clark remembered calling friends the night of the explosion, making sure everyone was safe. But just hearing their voices wasn’t reassuring enough.

“I didn’t physically see them,” Clark said. “Once I physically saw them, it reassured me that they were OK and I could relax.” 

Today, West ISD is in the early stages of planning and rebuilding a new campus that will hold both the junior high and high school students, set to open in a few years. In the meantime, students attend classes in a maze of portable buildings connected by wood decking.

“We haven’t gotten to really see people as much as we would’ve because we don’t have that senior hallway, but we still have gotten closer,” Wernet said.

This year’s prom was one of the school’s most decadent. Fundraising by the junior class, combined with a $6,700 donation from James Martin High School in Arlington, provided the school with all of the trims and tassels necessary to transform the hall into a party fit for
Jay Gatsby.

For high school seniors, spring semester is a time for banquets and celebrations. Although springtime in West stirs up memories of last year’s events, the students of West High School find time to relax and enjoy their last days of school — and of course, to spend a lavish night with friends at the prom.

“We just needed a night to ourselves to have fun — not really like forget about it but not have it on our mind,” Wernet said. “I think we just needed to have that night to have to ourselves.”