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On April 17, the ground shook in West, Texas.
It collapsed buildings and broke hearts.”
That’s what a solemn Chief Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), told more than 10,000 people at a memorial service in Waco in April.
Ten firefighters – brothers, husbands, fathers, friends – perished while trying to quell the flames at the fertilizer plant in West. Staying on the lines bought their neighbors – many elderly – time to escape. Two other men who did not officially belong to a fire department, but jumped in to help, met the same fate. They were named honorary firefighters.
The loss of the 10 responders in West was the largest during a single incident since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. In June 2007, nine firefighters were killed in Charleston, SC, while battling a blaze in a furniture store.
Thousands of fire and rescue personnel from across the nation traveled to Waco to honor the fallen heroes. Firefighters from some of the largest departments in the country offered a final salute. It was a day when all personnel – career and volunteer – joined as one for a tribute.
U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell Jr. expressed his heartfelt condolences not only to the families, but to the community. He spoke of the bravery demonstrated by the firefighters who stood their ground in the face of danger. And, Mitchell reminded the families that they will never be alone in their journeys – that their firefighter family will be with them every step of the way.
Killed in the blast were West Firefighters Doug and Robert Snokhous, Morris Bridges, Cody Dragoo and Joey Pustejovsky; Kenny Harris of Dallas Fire-Rescue; Jerry Chapman and Cyrus Reed of the Abbott Fire Department and West EMS; Perry Calvin of the Merknel Fire Department and Kevin Sanders of the Bruceville Eddy Fire Department and West EMS. Two civilians who jumped into action to help – Jimmy Matus and Buck Uptmor – were made honorary West firefighters.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wiped tears as they watched videotaped eulogies by the firefighters’ loved ones. During a memorial service that attracted more than 10,000 people, Obama praised the bravery of fallen heroes.
“For this state, for our country, these have been trying and difficult days,” Obama said. “We gather here in Texas to mourn the brave men who went through fire and all those who have been taken from us. That’s what happened last Wednesday, when a fire alarm sounded across a quiet Texas evening. As we’ve heard, the call went out to volunteers – not professionals – people who just love to serve. People who want to help their neighbors. A call went out to farmers and car salesmen, and welders and funeral home directors, the city secretary and the mayor. It went out to folks who are tough enough and selfless enough to put in a full day’s work and then be ready for more.
“And together, you answered the call. You dropped your schoolwork, left your families, jumped in fire trucks and rushed to the flames. And when you got to the scene, you forgot fear and you fought that blaze as hard as you could, knowing the danger, buying time so others could escape. And then, about 20 minutes after the first alarm, the earth shook and the sky went dark – and West changed forever.”
Obama vowed to help, and promised the people of West would not be forgotten when the cameras left.
“To the people of West,” he said, “just as we’ve seen the love you share in better times, as friends and brothers and sisters, these hard days have shown your ability to stand tall in times of unimaginable adversity…”
Here are snapshots of the heroes: