"I've never seen destruction like that," says a firefighter with decades of experience with destruction. On April 17, 2013, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded, killing 15 people and injuring 252 more—nearly 10% of the town's population. A rest home "folded like a house of cards" before being hit by an 800-pound block of the plant's foundation. Residents of an apartment complex were blown out of the building and into the parking lot. Debris was thrown more than two miles, and an Iraq War veteran 29 miles away recognized the sound of an explosion. The disaster was "the prologue to an epic investigation, a lingering mystery, a baffling twist and a series of epiphanies ... on what it means to prosper, to doubt, to be safe, to recover, to believe, to be a community," reports the Washington Post in a heartrending look at the explosion and its aftermath.
A federal investigation into the explosion is still ongoing—making it one of the largest ever conducted by the ATF. Investigators ruled in 2016 that someone had set the fire that caused 300,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate to explode, but that's as far as they've gotten. Meanwhile, West's residents have settled on their own divine explanation for the event that changed their lives. One resident says maybe the explosion happened "because God said we were all drifting too far apart." Others see God's hand in what was left: a resident was spared when she left town for dinner after finding a Panda Express coupon, a cross was the only thing remaining on a home's walls, and more. “There had to be something protecting us," another resident says. Read the full piece here for incredible stories from the explosion and how West pieced itself back together again. (Read more Longform stories.)