Texas town grieves for dead first-responders to fertilizer plan explosion

By Paul J. Weber

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 20 2013 8:26 a.m. MDT

Members of the West Volunteer Fire Department leave in a firetruck after attending a service at St. Mary's Church of the Assumption, Friday, April 19, 2013, two days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed 14 people including numerous members of the West Volunteer Fire Department and injured more than 160.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

WEST, Texas — Buck Uptmor didn't have to go to West Fertilizer Co. when the fire started. He wasn't a firefighter like his brother and cousin, who raced toward the plant. But a ranch of horses next to the flames needed to be moved to safety.

"He went to help a friend," said Joyce Marek, Uptmor's aunt. "And then it blew."

Two days after the fertilizer facility exploded in a blinding fireball, authorities announced Friday that they had recovered 14 bodies, confirming for the first time an exact number of people killed. Grieving relatives filed into a church offering comfort for families, as volunteers nearby handed out food to those still unable to return to homes damaged by the massive blast.

Ten of the dead were first-responders — including five from the West Volunteer Fire Department and four emergency medics, West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

The dead included Uptmor and Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary who doubled as a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department. A captain of the Dallas Fire Department who was off-duty at the time but responded to the fire to help also died.

The explosion was strong enough to register as a small earthquake and could be heard for many miles across the Texas prairie. It demolished nearly everything for several blocks around the plant. More than 200 people were hurt, and Muska said five first-responders were among those who remained hospitalized Friday.

The first-responders "knew it was dangerous. They knew that thing could go up at any time," said Ronnie Sykora, who was Pustejovsky's deacon at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church. "But they also knew that if they could extinguish that fire before it went up, that they could save tens of lives, hundreds of lives. That's why they were in there."

Following a tour of the rubble Friday, Gov. Rick Perry told reporters the search-and-rescue phase for anyone still trapped was largely finished. He said the state would offer help to the 29-member local fire department that had been "basically wiped out."

"To the first-responders: I cannot say thank you enough," Perry said.

Hours later, President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration and pledged federal disaster relief aid to help West recover. After addressing Friday night's arrest of the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect, the president extended his prayers and sympathies to everyone affected by the plant explosion and said he'd spoken to Perry and Muska and vowed that the community would get the resources it needs to rebuild.

"Our thoughts, our prayers are with the people of West, Texas, where so many good people lost their lives, some lost their homes, many were injured, many are still missing," Obama said.

Earlier Friday, Edward Smith, a volunteer chaplain for the Dallas Police Department, counseled firefighters at West's fire station.

"Right now, the general public might be saying, 'Well, why aren't they talking about this?'" Smith said of the firefighters. "They don't necessarily even want to talk about it. They're holding out hope."

In a town of just 2,800 people, everyone here knew someone affected by the explosion.

Officials offered reassurances Friday about the 60 or so people listed as unaccounted for after the blast. McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said many people on the list probably lost their homes and have simply been difficult to locate since the Wednesday evening accident.

"I think we're going to eliminate 99 percent" of those listed, he said.

The fertilizer facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be injected into soil. It also mixes other fertilizers.

Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he never would forget the "selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us."

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