orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

April 19, 2013

Texas town grieves for dead first-responders

Associated Press
The Orange Leader

WEST, Texas — Buck Uptmor didn't have to go to West Fertilizer Co. when the fire started. He wasn't a firefighter like his brother and cousin, who raced toward the plant. But a ranch of horses next to the flames needed to be moved to safety.

"He went to help a friend," said Joyce Marek, Uptmor's aunt. "And then it blew."

Two days after the fertilizer facility exploded in a blinding fireball, authorities announced Friday that they had recovered 14 bodies, confirming for the first time an exact number of people killed. Grieving relatives filed into a church offering comfort for families, as volunteers nearby handed out food to those still unable to return to homes damaged by the massive blast.

Ten of the dead were first-responders — including five from the West Volunteer Fire Department and four emergency medics, West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

The dead included Uptmor and Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary who doubled as a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department. A captain of the Dallas Fire Department who was off-duty at the time but responded to the fire to help also died.

The explosion was strong enough to register as a small earthquake and could be heard for many miles across the Texas prairie. It demolished nearly everything for several blocks around the plant. More than 200 people were hurt, and Muska said five first-responders were among those who remained hospitalized Friday.

The first-responders "knew it was dangerous. They knew that thing could go up at any time," said Ronnie Sykora, who was Pustejovsky's deacon at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church. "But they also knew that if they could extinguish that fire before it went up, that they could save tens of lives, hundreds of lives. That's why they were in there."

Following a tour of the rubble Friday, Gov. Rick Perry told reporters the search-and-rescue phase for anyone still trapped was largely finished. He said the state would offer help to the 29-member local fire department that had been "basically wiped out."

"To the first-responders: I cannot say thank you enough," Perry said.

Earlier in the day, Edward Smith, a volunteer chaplain for the Dallas Police Department, counseled firefighters at West's fire station.

"Right now, the general public might be saying, 'Well, why aren't they talking about this?'" Smith said of the firefighters. "They don't necessarily even want to talk about it. They're holding out hope."

In a town of just 2,800 people, everyone here knew someone affected by the explosion.

Officials offered reassurances Friday about the 60 or so people listed as unaccounted for after the blast. McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said many people on the list probably lost their homes and have simply been difficult to locate since the Wednesday evening accident.

"I think we're going to eliminate 99 percent" of those listed, he said.

The fertilizer facility stores and distributes anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can be injected into soil. It also mixes other fertilizers.

Plant owner Donald Adair released a statement saying he never would forget the "selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us."

One of the plant employees also was killed responding to the fire, Adair said.

Federal investigators and the state fire marshal's office began inspecting the blast site Friday to collect evidence that may point to a cause.

Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Friday evening that investigators still were combing through debris and would continue Saturday.

Residents cannot return to their homes until investigators are finished, Perot said. She did not have a timetable on when that might be.

"We're moving as fast as we can," Perot said. "We don't want them working at night because things can be missed."

Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who toured the town Friday, said they would wait for more information about the explosion before considering whether there should be more regulation of anhydrous ammonia.

The accident forever changed the community's landscape. An apartment complex was badly shattered, a school set ablaze and a nursing home left in ruins. At West Intermediate School, which was close to the blast site, all the building's windows were blown out, as well as the cafeteria.

Marek was teaching a high school youth group when the blast shook the room. The lights went out, and a student's phone lit up with a text message that there was an explosion at the fertilizer plant. He told Marek his brother's truck had been picked up and hurled into his family's house.

Marek spent the next couple of hours wondering if she knew anyone who might be at the plant. Then Uptmor's wife called.

"She said, 'Have you heard from Buck? She told me they had called him up there, and she couldn't get a hold of him," Marek said.

They spent the next few hours frantically searching for the father of three, who coached baseball, played drums in a band and whose phone always was ringing with people seeking help. Sometimes it was a truck stuck in a ditch or a house that flooded or a neighbor who needed a hand moving furniture.

Every time, Marek said, Uptmor would go.

"Why did they have to call him? He was safe at home with his family," Marek said. "But you know, if he hadn't gone, he wouldn't have been Buck."