Nine First Responders Presumed Dead in Texas Blast

April 19--WEST -- They are farmers, car salesmen, business owners and city employees.

But when flames broke out at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night, West volunteer firefighters and others left those jobs behind and rushed toward the danger blazing on the north end of town.

Those at ground zero of the thundering explosion never came home.

Grief and worry were etched on the faces of the men, women and children who gathered Thursday at the West Fire Station, desperately seeking information on the whereabouts of their loved ones.

While officials have backed off on their estimate of at least 15 dead, reports suggest that five West firefighters and at least three other emergency responders are among the missing and presumed dead.

Navarro County firefighter Perry Calvin, who was in West taking an emergency technician class Wednesday night, responded to the fire with a friend and both died in the explosion, according to Calvin's father, Phil Calvin, the chief in Navarro Mills.

Calvin declined to identify his son's friend.

Another firefighter from Dallas, Capt. Kenny Harris, who lives in West, also died, authorities said.

'They love doing this'

Brent Bridges, 18, stood distraught and shivering in the cold rain outside the firehouse Thursday morning and recounted how his father Morris Bridges left home to fight the fire the night before.

"The mayor talked to my aunt, saying that he probably didn't make it," Bridges said. "I am just hoping that he was wrong."

Brothers and volunteer firefighters Robert and Doug Snokhous also were missing.

From Florida, Marqee Snokhous spent the night and morning calling every hospital in the area hoping to find her father, Robert Snokhous, 47, and 50-year-old uncle.

As of Thursday afternoon, she said the family still had not received confirmation about her father's or uncle's fate.

"There's not been anything official but the mayor did call my stepmom," she said. "He told her that he's pretty sure that they're both inside the business in the plant, trapped in there. And that there's a pretty high probability that there's no survivors there."

Snokhous, 23, said her father and uncle, both residents of West, had been volunteering with the fire department since she was a young girl.

"They love doing this," she said. "They love to go and help somebody. They were always one of the first ones there. ... It's something they put their heart into."

Married a year ago

Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary for West, volunteers as a firefighter and "was there doing his job and he put his life in harm's way to protect the people that he needed to protect," said David Sebesta, Pustejovsky's brother-in-law.

He said Pustejovsky and his sister were married on March 10, 2012 at St. Mary's Catholic Church of the Assumption in West.

"He swept her off her feet," Sebesta said. "It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to her because they were so in love. I was so happy for her when she met him because he was so good to her. She needed that in her life."

Pustejovsky brought into the marriage one son and Kelly, one son and two daughters, Sebesta said.

"The best thing about Joey was he took my sister's kids and took them as his own," Sebesta said. "They call him Daddy."

Sebesta said his sister was driving near the football field when the explosion occurred.

"It basically busted the airbags in her car," he said. "She had his son and her oldest with her. It was a pretty catastrophic event."

Another West firefighter, Cyrus A. Reed, was also killed in the explosion, according to social media postings by friends and family.

Capt. Kenny Harris wasn't a volunteer firefighter but the 30-year-old Dallas fire veteran rushed to help when he learned of the fire in his community, according to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

"Captain Harris' response is typical of all our first responders; night and day, no matter where they are, no matter if they are on or off duty they respond with the greatest acts of bravery," said City Manager Mary K. Suhm. "The City of Dallas and citizens of Dallas have lost a real role model."

The Dallas Fire-Rescue chaplain and other members were in West Thursday to support the Harris family. Harris was a 52-year-old married father of three grown sons, according to the Dallas Fire Department.

"Our hearts are heavy and hurting with the loss of such a great firefighters, great husband and great family man," said Dallas Fire Chief Louie Bright III. "Dallas Fire-Rescue is wrapping its arms around the Harris family to provide comfort and support."

'It's just a sad situation'

The call to the West Fire Department came in at 7:29 p.m.

Firefighters began evacuating the area, and as they battled the blaze the explosion occurred, leaving a massive crater and damaging dozens of homes and other buildings in a five-block radius.

Officials said the first call on the explosion was logged at 7:53 p.m.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said he knows many of the West firefighters, a close-knit group that was well trained for dealing with a major incident such as a fire at the fertilizer facility.

"It's a volunteer fire department. But they were doing what they were trained to do -- putting their lives on the line. It's just a sad situation," McNamara said. "They got the same training as any other fire department."

Harry Nors, the mayor of the neighboring community of Abbott and a volunteer firefighter in that town, said Abbott firefighters raced to help West firefighters in the aftermath of the explosion.

"When you know them personally, it's hard to see friends of yours hurt," he said. "We know them well. We know them very well."

'It blew his shirt off'

Firefighters who survived the blast are recovering from injuries.

Misty Kaska, who lost her home to the explosion, said her uncle George Norris, the West volunteer fire chief, was among the firefighters hospitalized.

"Last we heard, he had a head injury and some broken bones," she said. "His wife was also injured. She was hurt at home while he got hurt out there fighting the fire. This is all so terrible. People have family members they can't find."

Brothers David and Kevin Maler are volunteer firefighters, said their mother Jean Maler.

Kevin wasn't hurt but the blast knocked David to the ground. The explosion damaged his ears and burned his legs, she said.

"They found him lying in the street," she said. "It blew his shirt off."

Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689 Twitter: @albranch1

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