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:
Before racing out the door when the tones dropped that night, Firefighter Bridges picked up his 2-year-old son, gave him a kiss and told him. “Daddy will be right back.”
A true Texan, friends said Calvin was the one who would walk up to a newcomer and shake his hand. He had been an emergency responder in the area for many years. He happily shared with his colleagues that he was excited about the birth of another child in November. His father, Phil Calvin, is the chief of the Navarro Mills Volunteer Fire Company.
A young man with computer training, Chapman had found his niche when he became a firefighter with the Abbott Volunteer Fire Company. He was within a week of becoming an EMT and had a dream of becoming a helicopter medic.
“I had to know if he did it right. And, I found out he was given orders, and he was doing it correctly…” his father, Dane Chapman, said. “I’m proud…”
“Jerry was the number-two man on the hose, right behind Cyrus Reed,” Chapman said, struggling to keep his emotions. “Not only did I lose my son, but Cyrus worked with me. He was one of the best…”
Rhonda Chapman added that not knowing for days about their son’s fate compounded their grief, and the experience will never be forgotten.
Chapman said he called authorities in various agencies all day Thursday, but got no answers.
“I told them we needed to know where our son was…”
When they arrived at a local church in West for what they believed was a “town” meeting, they were told grief counselors would be available.
Things got worse when Chapman said he was told by a person he believes was an ATF agent, that there was a criminal investigation ongoing at the site of the blast. “That’s the only thing he’d tell me…nothing about Jerry.”
Out of frustration, grief and anger, Chapman said he grabbed Jim Byers, a firefighter with the Texas LODD Task Force. “I looked him in the eye, and I told him I wanted my son.”
Byers was the one who came through for the grieving parents.
“We went through the most heart- wrenching time, and no one would listen or give us answers,” Mrs. Chapman said. “Thank God for Jimmy.”
They said their son had a big heart, and went out of his way to help people.
Originally from Montana, Firefighter Dragoo liked to hunt, watch NASCAR and cook. “Every night we cooked together,” his wife, Patty, said as she sat at the kitchen table. The night of the blast was a typical one. He had a water meeting in a nearby community, and was at a friend’s house…
“He called me and told me about the fire and it wasn’t going to be good. He said I may be able to see it from the yard out back. He was right. It was a huge fire…”
She heard an explosion, and her heart just went. And she did what Cody had told her to do if there was a big fire – stay home. She waited for him to call. Eventually, she tried him, but it went straight to voice mail. By dawn, she was getting really worried. Could he be at a hospital and unable to call? Her sisters and others had learned while watching morning news shows about firefighters killed. The sisters – Susan Miller and Cindy Kubacak – went the farm to comfort her.
“As time went on, I knew,” she said. “I just had this gut feeling.”
On Friday night, the local justice of the peace arrived to make it official.
She doubts she will be cooking or eating spaghetti anytime soon. “We were making spaghetti that night. Every night, we’d cook and talk and talk and talk…”
Nicknamed “Lucky,” Harris was a captain with Dallas Fire/Rescue who lived in West. He did what came naturally when he heard about the fire in his hometown – he responded. Harris loved spending time with his wife and three sons, and enjoyed fishing on his boat, “Boots Up.”
Described by friends as always smiling, Firefighter Pustejovsky was the city secretary. Joey’s wife said he was a caring father and husband. He served as the secretary/treasurer of the West Fire Department.
An Abbott firefighter, he loved the “deuce and a half.” He took pride in the equipment, and enjoyed teaching children about firefighting safety. He ran to the fire that night with his EMT class, but followed his heart and took the hoseline. He was on the nozzle when the blast occurred.
A veterinary technician from Illinois, Sanders joined the Bruceville-Eddy Fire Department and was taking the EMT class as well. A Superman fanatic, he and his wife, Sarah, named their son Reeve. Sanders, his brother said, had found his niche in the volunteer fire service and enjoyed racing to help others.
A captain with West Fire Department, Doug was usually one of the first to arrive on the scene. He mentored younger firefighters. People said they remembered when they saw him, his brother Robert, who also died, was usually nearby. Relatives said while it may sound strange, they are glad the brothers died together. It was something they would have wanted.
A captain with the West Fire Department like his brother, he was a hero even before he was killed in the plant blast. “Robert repeatedly demonstrated his dedication and commitment – and most certainly, his bravery,” said his step-daughter, McKenzie Ryan.
Two others who died that night on the front line were not fire department members, but were named honorary firefighters.
Buck Uptmor was a cowboy who had just rounded up horses in a nearby field and didn’t think twice when he was called to grab a line.
Jimmy Matus, who as a welder helped build West’s apparatus, also ran to join the others – without hesitation. n