West Texas Firefighter Remembered, Getty Images
West, TX-- The firefighters responding to last week's fire at a West, Tex., fertilizer depot knew the risky mix of fertilizer and fire.
The mostly volunteer group farmers, city employees, dads and husbands rushed to help anyway.
They did so, knowing their fate was tied to the mounds of ammonium nitrate stocked in a shed for spring planting.
In a deafening flash, they were gone - 10 firefighters from five departments - marking the second deadliest incident involving firefighters in Texas history and one of the worst ever in the USA.
Five of those killed were from the West Volunteer Fire Department, and at least five other firefighters were hospitalized in the Apr. 17 blast that killed 14 people overall and injured more than 200.
Nationally, the West blast was the highest single-incident firefighter fatality count since 9/11, when 340 firefighters were killed responding to the terrorist attacks in New York, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The memorials, which began earlier this week, continue today with a public memorial service at Baylor University in nearby Waco, Tex., that will be attended by President Obama and hundreds of fellow first responders from across the USA.
"Today's going to be a sad day," West Mayor Tommy Muska said. "These were some really, really dedicated people. I'm just heart-broken."
Volunteer fire departments such as the one in West make up 78% of the 1,900 departments in Texas and nearly 70% of all departments across the nation, said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas.
The last incident involving so many firefighter fatalities in a single incident was the 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, he said. That blast killed 27 volunteer firefighters responding to the initial fire and more than 580 people overall.
Unlike full-time fire departments, such as ones found in Dallas and Houston, rural communities like West rely on volunteer firefighters who juggle those duties with outside jobs and are often less trained than career firefighters, Barron said. Of the five West volunteer firefighters killed in the blast, three had achieved a moderate level of training - known as "Firefighter 1" - and two had no certified training, Barron said.
The deaths have rocked the firefighting community nationally, many who have sent fire equipment or personnel to attend the memorials or voiced their support on a Facebook dedicated to the victims.
"This was just devastating for the entire fire service across the country," said Kimberly Quiros of the National Volunteer Fire Council. "To lose so many in one incident has had a devastating effect. It's really horrible."
The impact has been felt most sharply in West, a city of 2,800 residents where even the mayor is a volunteer firefighter. "Everybody is at a loss right now," said councilwoman Cheryl Marak, whose husband, Marty, is a volunteer firefighter but survived the blast. "We got quite a few funerals coming up. It's really bad."
The volunteers answered the call of a fire at the West Fertilizer Company at around 7:30 p.m. on Apr. 17, Muska said. Four other firefighters from area departments were taking an evening training course at the West Volunteer Emergency Medical Service facility nearby and also rushed to the scene.
Among the volunteers: Cody Dragoo, 50, who worked at the fertilizer depot. Capt. Kenneth Harris, a 30-year veteran with Dallas Fire-Rescue who lived in West, also showed up and told the gathered firefighters the risks of having the fire so close to the combustible chemicals, Muska said.
"They knew it was not going to be good," he said.
On Harris' orders, the firefighters were rolling up the hose and backing the fire truck out of the property in retreat when the explosion hit, instantly killing all the men on site, destroying nearby homes and leaving a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, Muska said.
This week's memorials are a chance for the rest of the country to recognize those who died in service during the blast, he said. But it'll take a lot longer for the city to recover.
"They were part of the community," Muska said. "They were long-term citizens." He added: "I hope the American people realize these people were the best of the best."