NORMAN — Oklahoma freshman Kolbey Carpenter was studying last Wednesday when his mother called from the family's hometown in West, Texas.
“She told me the fertilizer plant was on fire,” Carpenter said. “I didn't think anything of it. I thought it was just a fire. I didn't think anyone was affected by it.
“As the night went on, I was getting more phone calls and people were sending me pictures and telling me there was an explosion and it was bad, and that half the town was destroyed.”
While firefighters worked to extinguish the flames, the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded, decimating the surrounding area and killing 14 people. Among those killed were Dallas Fire-Rescue Capt. Kenneth Harris and volunteer firefighter Buck Uptmor, two Carpenter family friends.
Harris' son, Heath, was Carpenter's closest friend throughout high school. The morning after the explosion, Carpenter texted his friend, who said his father still hadn't been located. By 10:30 a.m., rescue workers had found his body.
“Right there I decided to go ahead and go home,” Carpenter said. “They were really close to our family and we've been longtime friends with them. I thought it would be best if I went home to be with him.”
Carpenter's family moved to West — a small town with a population just south of 3,000 — when he was 13 years old. He drove past the fertilizer plant “way more times than I can count,” he said, because it was located less than half-a-mile from West High School.
His family lives on the opposite side of town from the fertilizer plant, so the Carpenter home survived the explosion.
Still, Carpenter was stunned when he returned home to help in the aftermath.
“When I went home I didn't get to go into the site because they have it all blocked off,” Carpenter said. “It was just really crazy. There were reporters and fire trucks and police just from everywhere, all over Texas. That was the most crowded I've seen the small town of West ever. It was a huge shock to me.”