Adds Montgomery Irwin, whose bakery specializing in kolaches and other Czech foods is a frequent meeting place for residents, "Time does heal. But you don't forget."

Even with reconstruction abounding, she adds, "From an emotional standpoint, it seems like it was just yesterday."

Some say the tragedy contributed to more than the initial loss of life.

West Rest Haven's residents dispersed to about 10 facilities after the explosion, leaving their friends and caretakers behind. Over the past year, these elderly people died at about twice the rate that would have been expected, Smith says.

"People ask me if it had anything to do with the explosion," he says. "And I say, 'Yes, it certainly does.'"

The loss of the nursing home didn't just affect its residents. Emil "Sonny" Fridel, 91, misses his almost daily trips to visit friends at West Rest Haven and misses the weekly masses there, according to his daughter, Mary Ann Kubacak.

A reunion a few months ago cheered up the nursing home's former residents, as did the recent groundbreaking on the new facility.

Their feelings are similar to many others displaced by the blast, Smith says: "Most of them want to get back to West as soon as possible."

Ray Snokhous lost two cousins, both firefighters, in the explosion. A lawyer who returned a decade ago to West, where his father had been the town blacksmith, Snokhous says, "It's difficult to put into words" how his and other families are able to rebound emotionally.

But reflecting on the town's history of settlers who fled oppression in Europe and of sending men like himself, a Korean War veteran, to serve in the U.S. military, Snokhous said the people of West have shown their resilience time and again.

"We're survivors," said Snokhous, who is the Czech Republic's honorary consul general in Texas. "And we are also fighters. ... God gives us a wake-up call every so often, and we respond to it."

'We will put it back together'

Residents say their faith has been instrumental in understanding and dealing with last April's tragedy. Montgomery Irwin says the anniversary falling so close to Easter -- with its message of resurrection and renewal -- is especially appropriate for the people of West.

Snokhous lauds not just his own Catholic church, but churches of other denominations that helped heal the mourning community.

"What I have seen is a community come together like (one) could have never imagined," he says. "... We have the blessings of the life remaining. And we will put it back together."

Whoever one talks to, that word -- community -- comes up again and again.

Notes Kubacak, who grew up in the town and still visits regularly, "The people of West have always helped each other."

Montgomery Irwin was living and working in New York, where she was a vice president in Macy's marketing division, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The scale of the destruction and suffering was immense, but even then there were many people in the city who didn't know anyone personally affected.

That's not true for West, to which Montgomery Irwin returned seven years ago after her father's death.

It's still a place where everyone seemingly runs into each other every day, be it at her bakery, the supermarket, the hardware store or church. A lot of people don't readily complain or ask for help, but they now more than ever realize their neighbors will open their doors, wallets and hearts when it's needed.

What's most different now is that, through this terrible tragedy, people the world round have gotten to know West. It's not just a town on the east side of Interstate 35, a dot on the map between Dallas and Austin.

"People know now that West is truly a place," says Montgomery Irwin. "And actually, quite a special place."