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.”
Donations — clothes, supplies, everything — poured into the small town, which set up a base at West's fairgrounds.
“It was one of the most unique experiences I've been a part of,” Carpenter said. “There were so many people there, and so many people donating and helping with the relief. Everyone coming together and trying to help out the families as best they can.”
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway was fully supportive when Carpenter said he needed to go home. The first baseman, who has started 34 games this season as a true freshman, missed the Sooners' three-game series last weekend against New Orleans.
“I just did anything and everything I could to make it easier on him,” Golloway said. “When he got down there, I told him to be prepared, because, small community, you're surely gonna find out more. We were supportive, but I think anybody in the country would've been supportive. Our job is just to try to help a young man. ... But I couldn't say or do anything to prepare him for what he was gonna see.”
Monday night, Carpenter chose to return to Norman. He said his friend, Heath Harris, is “being really strong” while coping with his father's death.
The entire town is still trying to cope with the explosion, and Carpenter acknowledged the recovery won't be easy.
“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 is so many people from other places there. It's kind of not normal right now.”