United in adversity: West, Texas, prays for Boston, which sends pizzas to West

As refugees in West, Texas waited to return to homes devastated by a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant, their talk, concern, and prayers turned to the terrorist attack in Boston. 'I've never been to Boston,' one Texan commented, 'but now I really want to go. It seems like a cool city.'

Charlie Riedel/AP
West, Texas, mayor pro tem Steve Vanek talks to the media in front of city hall Saturday, three days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant Wednesday night killed as many as 14 people and injured more than 160.

Lauretta Cvikel has her own problems. On Wednesday, she was knocked over by the explosion at West Fertilizer Plant, noting, "I never thought I'd be able see air move!" For another 20 minutes "that felt like forever" she didn't know the whereabouts of her pre-teen son, Allen, who was eventually found safe.

But as Ms. Cvikel tells her dramatic story, her thoughts suddenly wander eastward and to the North, to a manhunt and citywide lock down in Boston, which ended several hours later. Even as West continued to tally its casualties and homeless residents wandered around in their trucks, she noted, "I can't imagine what people in Boston are going through. We've been praying for them too."

Such reciprocal sympathies toward the end of inarguably the worst week of the year – terror bombs, ricin letters, rural explosions, shootouts and manhunts – also rubbed off on President Obama, who took a few minutes during his remarks on the capture of the Boston bomb suspect to mention the residents of West, Texas, saying, "We've also seen a tight-knit community in Texas devastated by a terrible explosion."

The phenomenon was in many ways natural: Victims of circumstance and tragedy easily empathize with others going through hard times. But it also pointed to a unique sense of national solidarity wrought by chaos and resolved by a sense of hope. "We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out," explains Jesse Washington of the Washington Post.

Some here in West wondered how CNN's Anderson Cooper could have materialized in Boston only hours after leaving West, but there was little bitterness about the drift in national attention. If anything, residents of central Texas cheered the capture of the surviving bomb suspect because it buoyed their spirits as much as those of the applauding crowds on the streets of Watertown, clapping as police drove through.

Texas State Trooper Bryan Washko toured what he called "war zone" devastation early Friday before setting up a road block into a neighborhood knocked over by the Wednesday night explosion.

But even as the Killeen-based trooper ached for the plight of fellow Texans, he said he'd spent most of his shift listening to NPR’s coverage of the Thursday night manhunt and shootout that led to one of the suspects – two Chechen brothers – being killed and the other one, the younger brother, somehow escaping the grasp of police. 

While repairing his family's own damaged BBQ joint and listening to stories about who was hurt or killed in West, one burly, goateed resident, using an iPhone police scanner app, followed the Boston manhunt in real-time as police commands out of Watertown echoed across the Internet and into a kitchen in West.

To some, the rise of smart phones and constant contact exacerbated the rough week, pouring endless details, analysis, and opinion into the country's bloodstream. "There's no place to run, no place to hide," Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a media psychologist, observed to the Associated Press. "We're dealing with future shock on a daily basis."

But if newfangled devices and shoot-from-the-hip media excited the masses, it also appeared to solder together at least parts of America's social and class fissures, including the blue-red state divide between rural Texas and urbane Cambridge and Boston. Along with tragedy came stories of hope and heroes, and regular Americans doing their best to help each other, no matter their differences.

Seen one way, the human drama in West was as shattering as that in Boston, with nearly half the city's volunteer fire department killed and scores of others injured and killed. But out here in America's beef-grazing country, the prospects of terror attacks in Boston, a major American city in lockdown, and a successful manhunt understandably inspired equal outpouring of support, prayers, and new ideas of how to reach across geographical and cultural divides.

"I've never been to Boston," one Texan commented, "but now I really want to go. It seems like a cool city."

The two disaster areas shared more direct contact, as well, this week.

As doctors in Waco's Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center attended to dozens of people injured in the West explosion on Wednesday might, a large order of pizzas suddenly appeared. "... from one doc to another, 'Thanks for all your hard work,'" a note said. 

The pizzas had been ordered by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, who two days earlier had treated many of the Boston Marathon victims.

UPDATE Saturday 5:00 pm

Having rushed out of their homes after the explosion, some in stockinged feet and with just the clothes they wore, residents were allowed on Saturday to begin coming back into the bomb-blasted area.

Frustration had increased as officials responded to a series of small fires near the plant, a result of chemicals spilling out of another tank. But determining the situation "safe, safe, safe," Mayor Pro Tem Steve Vanek announced the return on Saturday afternoon, and residents began to filter in to start cleaning, filing insurance claims, and looking for pets.

As the town prepares a memorial for the 14 residents lost in the conflagration, Mr. Vanek acknowledged that opening the neighborhood up once again for habitation became a major step in the town's recovery.

"It's a big step, but it's also a small step," he said. "We have a ways to go."

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