By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — The words Kolbey Carpenter heard on April 17 were hard to comprehend. The afternoon call he received from his mother about a fertilizer plant fire in his hometown of West, Texas, was to let him know about the day’s news in the small town of about 2,800.
More calls, texts messages and photos arrived later that night as he huddled with teammates at L. Dale Mitchell Park because of severe weather. The fire turned into a town-shattering explosion.
“I didn’t really get a lot of information,” Carpenter said Thursday at L. Dale Mitchell Park. “I tried to call a lot of my friends. The cell service wasn’t very good at the time because so many people were in town. I didn’t really learn a lot until around midnight. The information kind of went from there. I was up all night trying to get in touch with everyone and making sure everyone was OK. It was just a bad deal.”
Carpenter, who is Oklahoma’s first baseman, had his world shrink that night. He was no longer the college freshman. His mind quickly turned to a town he had lived just south of since he was 13 years old. His family’s home was outside of the explosion’s radius. It was one of the few things the devastation spared.
The high school he attended looked like it had been hit by a bomb. His family was fine. Friends, however, were not.
Kenneth “Luckey” Harris, a Dallas Fire-Rescue Captain, was the father of Heath Harris, one of Carpenter’s closest friends. Kenneth Harris arrived at the scene to help fight the fire in its early stages. He was one of the 14 killed in the explosion.
When Carpenter found out about that last Thursday, he knew he had to return to West.
“Right there I decided to go ahead and go home. They were really close to our family and we’ve been longtime friends with them,” Carpenter said. “I thought it would be best if I went home to be with him.”
The town he grew up in wasn’t the same. The north side of town, where the fertilizer plant was, was cordoned off, and no one was allowed in. The small community he knew so well had changed, too. It was crowded with relief workers, media and others. Streets were jammed and roads were blocked.
“I think everyone’s still in shock. I really just think everyone doesn’t know what to do right now, just because there’s so much damage,” Carpenter said. “It’s going to take so much to rebuild and so long to rebuild everything. Everyone’s not really used to having everyone in town like that, with it being such a small close-knit community. There are so many people from other places there. It’s kind of not normal right now.”
No one knows when it will be again. The rebuilding process will be lengthy. The psychological impact is immeasurable.
Carpenter returned to Norman on Monday. He’ll be in the lineup when the Sooners open a three-game series with Texas Tech at 6:30 p.m. today at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
In some ways it’s a return to normalcy. Getting to play baseball again is a welcome distraction. Teammates are glad to have him back. They worry about him.
“He’s handling it real well. We try to keep his encouragement up and just play and have fun on the field,” OU pitcher Jonathan Gray said.
However, it’s impossible to block out what happened in his hometown.
“I never would have imagined in a million years that would happen. I drove by that fertilizer plant way more times than I can count,” Carpenter said. “It was actually right across from the high school. I was across the street from it every day. I never would have thought that would happen, especially to West, of all places.”