West Polkas, Downs Kolaches, Pivos, Honors Heroes

Sept. 01--WEST -- John Simcik grew up here, raised around polka and famous kolaches and the long expanse of Interstate 35 and blue sky.

Four months ago, a fertilizer plant exploded and changed everything he knew.

Simcik returned Saturday to one old tradition that still remains -- WestFest, the end-of-summer blowout that for 38 years has been a hallmark of this small town. This weekend marks the first WestFest since the April 17 blast killed 15 people and leveled part of the town.

"This city is a different place, and we know that," said Simcik, who coordinates donations for West Long Term Recovery, the group set up to manage relief efforts. "But we still honor our heritage. We still celebrate who we are."

Thousands of Texans streamed into West on Saturday to share in the celebration, dance to polka music, eat kolaches and enjoy a pivo, the Czech word for beer.

Even with temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees, organizers planned for above-average crowds. The festival typically draws 20,000 to 22,000 people, organizers say, but attendance had dwindled in recent years amid competition from area events.

Somber reminders of the explosion were sprinkled throughout the day. Fallen first responders served as honorary grand marshals of a morning parade that wound through town, and photographs of the fallen volunteer firefighters were shown on a firetruck as bagpipes played.

During the opening ceremony, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Attorney General Greg Abbott spoke to the crowd before a brief moment of silence.

Cornyn made a presentation to Robert Fleming, who was principal of West Intermediate School last year. Fleming lost seven Army medals that had been framed in his school office and were destroyed by the blast. Cornyn, who had learned of the lost medals through a mutual friend, provided Fleming with replacements.

"I can't even describe how this feels," Fleming said.

Many in the town said they hoped this year's festival would focus on West and its rich Czech heritage, while delivering a sense of normalcy to the people still reeling from the blast.

"We will never forget the people we lost, but today is about celebrating," said John Hurtick, the longtime president of WestFest. "We are celebrating our heritage and our resiliency."

For festival-goers, that meant taking spins on a Ferris wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl, dancing and singing along to the polka and feasting on sausages, sauerkraut and other signature festival foods.

"This is a tradition," said Julie Baker, a lifelong resident who recalled attending the first WestFest. "We're showing everyone that West is still here. We didn't give up."

WestFest serves as an economic engine for West, but also as a boost for civic and nonprofit organizations.

Money raised goes into a pool, and local groups apply for funding. Depending on the year, $10,000 to $50,000 has been given to local organizations, including youth baseball leagues, gymnastics, the Kiwanis Club and the Fire Department, among others, Hurtick said.

Around the fairgrounds, long lines formed at WestFest Souvenir booths, where people purchased hats, T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with phrases like WestFest 2013 and "Got Kolaches."

Simcik, who volunteered at one of the booths with his wife, Darlene, said he has friends from as far as New Mexico attending the festival to support West.

"The crowds have been incredible," he said. "Everyone wants to show their support."

Mason Matus, a senior at West High School, has danced the polka at WestFest for the past several years. This year's festival, he said, felt steeped in importance.

"We all need to get our minds off of what happened and just be together," said Matus, 17. "This gives us something else to focus on, even if it's only for one weekend."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056 Twitter: @sarahbfw

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