orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

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April 19, 2013

Texas town grieves for dead first-responders

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."

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