WEST, Texas — The two-tone brown Ford F-150 careens into the downtown parking space and out jumps Tommy Muska, a mayor on the move.
Wearing a baseball cap, green long-sleeved shirt and bluejeans, his face ruddy from a life under the central Texas sun, he hurries into his insurance office here, quickly besieged by visitors. Since an explosion at a fertilizer factory leveled a swath of this town of 2,800 residents, killing at least 14 people, everybody has wanted a piece of Muska.
Many want to hug the 55-year-old golf fanatic with the easygoing Lone Star drawl. They have questions about the families of five volunteer firefighters killed in the blast, about the future of their town and, just as important, about Muska himself — is he getting enough sleep, or any at all?
Not really. Since the explosion, Muska has emerged as the face of this ravaged community — its gregarious mayor and its calming counselor. He’s a member of the volunteer fire force, which responded to the blast at West Fertilizer Co. that erupted on April 17 with a force likened to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Muska was there too, and five good friends died before his eyes.
The Muska family lost their home in the blast, along with scores of other residents. Since then, he’s been staying with his wife, Lisa, at a hotel, with little clue about his future and how the mayhem will affect his 14-year-old daughter, Claire.
But all of that will have to wait. Muska, who took the unpaid mayor’s post in June 2011, has a wounded town to take care of.
He’s not the only mayor in America facing a monumental task. Boston Mayor Tom Menino left his hospital bed while recuperating from a broken leg to help guide his city after the Boston Marathon bombings.
But with an annual budget of just $2 million, in a town where nearly 1 in 5 residents lives below the national poverty line, Muska lacks not only the big-city resources, but the experience of facing the bright lights of the national television cameras. Nobody would blame this country mayor if he looked like a long-horned steer in the headlights. Somehow, he doesn’t.
“I gotta remind myself,” says Muska, “that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
He plops down at a desk bearing a wooden plaque that reads “Mayor Mu,” a sign referring to Muska’s father, A.J. Muska Jr., who served as mayor here from 1975 to 1985. The walls are a paean to golf, pictures of the late Payne Stewart, a rack of clubs directly beneath.
A fellow volunteer firefighter walks in. The two big men embrace. The visitor says he’s been out to see the family of one of the firefighters who was killed. Muska nods. “I’m gonna have to go out and see her,” he says. “She’ll be OK. She’s a fireman’s wife. She’s hard as hell.”
The drill of speaking to the wives of friends killed in the line of duty is never easy. “Ya can’t tell ’em anything,” Muska says. “You thank 'em for their husband’s service — it’s all you can do.”
Then a thought occurs to him. “Tell Jim and the others they need to get counseling,” he tells his colleague, referring to the volunteer firefighters. “Eddie too. He’s very upset.”
Muska is upset too, though he’s trying not to show it. Asked how he copes with such mind-boggling tragedy, he points to a picture of a young man on the shelf behind him — a high school head shot. Nick Muska died in a car crash in 2005.
“I’m not making light of this tragedy,” his father says, tears in his eyes, his voice breaking, just for a moment. “I lost my son. You go through that, this here is nothing.”
Muska recalls that on the night of the explosion he had spotted the fire that preceded the blast and arrived at the plant to direct crowd control. He parked about a block away and was walking toward the blaze.
Then it hit: “My hat blew off. Split-second later, boom. Then, right after that, the concussion.”
He recalls the shock of the blast’s immediate aftermath.
“I saw one of our trucks and I knew our people were there,” he says. “I knew right then that they were not going to be found alive.”
The days following the blast have been a seemingly never-ending series of meetings, briefings and inspections.
Two days after the explosion, he stood at the epicenter of a crowded news conference, Texas Gov. Rick Perry right behind him. One day there was a lunch with the Czech ambassador, in town to express condolences and donate to rebuilding efforts in a town where many people, including Muska, are of Czech descent. There was the tour of the blast site with FEMA officials and meetings with the families of the dead.
Then last week, there was the memorial service at nearby Baylor University in Waco, with President Obama in attendance. And for Muska, more meetings, more phone calls to make, more work.
“People in this town believe in him,” says Larry Knapek, editor of the local weekly, West News. “They know he’s following in the footsteps of his father.”
“I took some pictures and we talked a little bit,” Knapek recalls. “And he told me, ‘Not everyone agrees with what you do as mayor.’ Then he told me a lesson his father taught him: that if somebody asks you something, you tell them the truth. That’s the best way to deal with people.”
Muska has lived in the community all his life. He met Lisa while she was attending Baylor and Muska a local college. The insurance business is all he’s ever known.
For days, Lisa, an antiques seller, has stepped in to run Muska’s insurance business, turning her antiques shop just across the railroad tracks into a claim center. “I take care of our daughter and family needs and Tommy’s business, so he can do his mayor’s job,” she says.
She says losing their son has given her husband perspective.
“He knows, like I do, that we can rebuild our house. But I’m just so thankful that our daughter and Tommy are still alive. Because if we’d been in that house when that blast hit, we’d all be dead.”
Muska spoke at a Sunday church service, and apologized for not getting vital information to the townspeople fast enough. Then, drawing laughter, he mentioned the one miracle of the entire nightmare. He called out a congregant by name, telling the crowd the man’s chickens were found, and they’re all still alive.
The residents gave their mayor a standing ovation.
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Times staff writer Rick Rojas contributed to this report.