WEST, TEXAS – When you see West EMS Supervisor Tom Marek these days he’s likely on his phone and running to another meeting – really running.
West EMS – a 35-year volunteer ambulance service – is now out of service after losing its building, two ambulances and all supplies when the nearby fertilizer plant exploded.
But, the greatest devastation for West EMS was the loss of four personnel – Kevin Sanders, Perry Calvin, Cyrus Reed and Jerry Chapman.
They were taking an EMT class at the ambulance station when they got the call to help evacuate a nearby nursing home and apartment building.
“I was driving a fire engine from Abbott, and decided to come in on the back side. I had to slow down the smoke was so heavy. All of a sudden, the smoke cleared and the truck was getting pelted by chunks of metal and debris. I knew that wasn’t good. They couldn’t have gotten it out that fast. I stopped the truck, and laid down across the front seat. When the second blast happened, it picked up the entire truck and slammed it back down.”
Marek said the engine-tanker carrying 2,000 gallons of water leaks and has a cracked windshield. But, it protected him.
The paramedic spent the next hours helping with triage and treating patients. He knew early on that many of those who responded wouldn’t be going home.
The EMT Class
When the fire first started at the plant, a husband and wife EMS crew answered the call. When the situation escalated, they called back to the station located nearby and asked the students to help evacuate the nursing home.
They raced to help with evacuations. “Two of them went to where their hearts were – on the fire side,” Marek said.
Some of the firefighters who were overcome by smoke made it out prior to the second explosion. But, many didn’t.
The EMT graduation is now set for April 29.
Marek said the students were awesome that night. He couldn't be prouder how they performed under pressure.
All of the injured EMS personnel have been released from the hospital, but many are still suffering percussion effects. And, Marek is most concerned about their psychological health. Counseling has been available.
Evacuation saved lives
Marek says a number of things that fell into place helped save people from the blast that registered 2.1 on the Richter scale.
There’s a high berm by the railroad tracks that sent the blast upward instead of spreading across a wider area.
Without time to move the nursing home patients to a safe location, a decision was made to move them to a section furthest from the plant. “They got them in there and closed the fire doors. That’s what saved them.”
The lost personnel
Kevin Sanders – A relative newcomer to West, the vet tech was finding his niche’ in the fire and EMS field. A Superman fanatic, Sanders named his son Reeve. After class while many stayed around to chat, he would head home to his wife and to hold his two-month-old son.
Cyrus Reed – A firefighter at heart, Reed treated Marek’s son like his own. He took him on runs, and explained fire safety. He had a knack for the duce and ½.
Jerry Chapman – The word ‘no’ wasn’t in his vocabulary. He was never seen without a smile, and was eager to use the EMT skills to enhance his firefighting.
Perry Calvin – A long-time volunteer firefighter, he was attending Hill College Fire Academy. He was a family man who enjoyed talking about his wife and sons. His wife is expecting a baby in November.
West EMS Future
Marek knows it will be awhile before his department is up and running.
In the meantime, East Texas EMS is handling calls.
“We don’t have a building. Three months of supplies are gone and we lost two ambulances. We’re also a training site, and all that equipment was destroyed.”
Marek knows his people have enough to deal with right now. They’ve lost their friends, family members and many, their homes.
“We all need time to grieve. This hasn’t really set in yet for many…”