Jimmy Matus, 52, a well-loved member of the community, helped build the department's engine as the owner of Westex Welding.
Buck Uptmor Jr., who led horses to safety in a field, and joined the firefighters in their effort, was killed in the blast.
July 07--Jimmy Matus and Buck Uptmor were memorialized alongside 10 firefighters and paramedics killed in the April explosion at the West Fertilizer Co., but the two men weren't actually first responders.
Considered "honorary firefighters," the two were included in a memorial service during the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas' annual conference last week, and their relatives have received a payment from the city's life insurance policy for the West Volunteer Fire Department.
But because they weren't technically firefighters, their survivors aren't eligible for line-of-duty death benefits from the Department of Justice or the state of Texas, which will likely pay relatives of first responders killed in the West explosion a total of $578,612.
"They were helpers. They had the community in mind," said West Mayor Tommy Muska. "They're as much heroes as the first responders, I think. They could have sat on their back porch and drank a beer, but they didn't."
Muska said the city had a life insurance policy for the West VFD that also covered accidents, and said that the policy awarded funds to relatives of the five deceased firefighters and two honorary ones, although he did not have the exact amount paid. An insurance representative said there was a life insurance policy through the Volunteer Firemens Insurance Services, but because of "privacy issues," she wouldn't disclose specifics on payments.
Jimmy Matus' son Dustin, 27, said he was working at his family's fire truck building company one day after the April 17 explosion when a representative from the city approached him.
"I was working and somebody handed me a check," he said, declining to disclose the check's amount. "It was enough to pay off some debt. I was completely surprised, I wasn't expecting anything."
His father's only child, Dustin Matus was eating dinner at his parents' house across a pasture from the plant when he saw the flames. Jimmy Matus, 52, went to the scene to help with a fire truck -- the VFD had apparently had problems with the truck's foam that day -- and Dustin Matus and his fiance were taking pictures on the back porch when the plant blew up.
Uptmor, a 45-year-old "fence-builder, musician and rodeo devotee," according to his obituary, had rushed to a home next to the plant to free some livestock -- he loved horses, friends said. Dustin Matus said Uptmor was reportedly walking back to his pickup at the time of the explosion. Attempts to reach his widow, Arcy, were unsuccessful.
"The money and stuff is the last thing on my mind," Dustin Matus said. "I would give everything in the world to have my dad back right now, but it's not going to happen."
Rules are rules
Surviving relatives of first responders killed while on-duty in Texas are eligible for funds from two sources: the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Texas, which set aside $5.47 million for the benefits each year in 2014 and 2015, according to the state's budget.
The federal funds are dispersed through the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program, whose director Hope Janke traveled to West to meet with relatives and help them start to gather the paperwork necessary for filing their benefit applications in late May. Janke did not return several calls seeking a comment on the status of the West families' applications.
A spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System of Texas, which administers the state benefits, declined to say whether the applications have been submitted yet, but added that "ERS works quickly to process all cases once the information is in."
According to the National Fallen Firefighters Association and Texas Fire Marshals' Association, the applications processes are stalled because of necessary paperwork: in order to consider awarding the benefits, the survivors must submit, among other documents, a death certificate. But since the State Fire Marshals' Office has not yet ruled on the cause of the fire that prompted the explosion -- officials suspect it was sparked by a person, a 120-volt electrical system or a battery-powered golf cart -- the official cause of the 15 West fatalities remains undetermined, and death certificates are still unsigned.
"If there is a possibility that someone set the fire that caused the explosion, then it turns into a homicide case," said Wendy Norris, director of the Texas Fire Marshals' Association's Line of Duty Death Task Force. "The slow part is gathering the information; typically, there's a decision within eight weeks."
Norris said that a state panel will review the 10 cases and approve or deny their benefits requests. If the deceased officer had a child, their guardian receives $200 each month; for two children, the check increases to $300; and the amount rises to $400 each month if there are three or more surviving children. She added that since first responders came from so many agencies, it may take some time to determine who gets the benefits.
"Except for (Buck and Uptmor), we're really all in a grey area," she said. "You have to be on record at a local fire department, but there are several different departments, one man was from Dallas and several were in an EMS class."
Aside from West, departments who lost firefighters at the scene included Abbott, Bruceville-Eddy and Mertens volunteer fire departments, according to the SFMO. Capt. Kenneth "Lucky" Harris Jr., of the Dallas Fire Department, was off-duty but also died after rushing to help at the plant.
Dr. George Smith, the medical director of West who knew Matus, Uptmor and most of those killed in the blast, said the men were "good people trying to help," but understands why the benefits won't be available to their families.
"They've got rules, and if you're not a member of the fire department, you're not eligible," Smith said. "I wish they could get them, but they can't."
Aside from the money, recipients of the benefits also are eligible for peer support, grief counseling and camps for child survivors. Linda Hurley, director of survivor programs for the National Fallen Firefighters Association, which helps survivors through the national application process, said families have told them their services are immensely helpful.
"It lets them know that they are not alone, that someone else remembers the sacrifice that their firefighter made," she said. "It gives them a sense of hope that they will get through it."
Despite the official benefits process, Muska said, Matus and Uptmor will be remembered as heroes, just like the 10 first responders who perished, in West. He said to make things easier for their families, and to honor their efforts, Matus and Uptmor were included in the April 25 memorial attended by more than 9,000 people, but their caskets were draped in Texas flags, not U.S. flags like the others.
"They may not be on a list anywhere else in the country, but they will be here: they will be included in our first responders memorial," he said. "In my mind, they are just as entitled as anyone else." firstname.lastname@example.org
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