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Volunteer fire company decimated in blast

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 9:30 p.m.

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 on Friday that they had recovered 14 bodies, confirming for the first time an exact number killed.

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

“Basically, the West VFD is without two-thirds of their members at this point,” reported the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association of Texas on its website. Of the 29 firefighters on the town's roster, five have died and 11 others are hospitalized, it reported.

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 also died.

More than 200 people were hurt, and Muska said five first-responders were among those who remained hospitalized.

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.”

Very small towns depend on all-volunteer departments and, it turns out, so does the country as a whole. Forty percent of the population is protected by volunteer firefighters, saving taxpayers an estimated $130 billion annually.

The national trend is that such departments are declining in size as the average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing.

National experts are hoping the episode can help focus attention on the country's dependence on such volunteer departments, how valuable such volunteerism is, how appreciated such first responders are, and how broad their training needs to be.

Volunteers make up 69 percent of the firefighters in the country; that is, 756,450 of 1,100,450 firefighters are volunteer. Of the total 30,145 fire departments, 20,200 are all-volunteer, 5,530 are mostly volunteer, 1,865 are mostly career, and 2,550 are all career. Most career firefighters (73 percent) are in communities that protect 25,000 or more people. Most volunteer firefighters (94 percent) are in departments that protect fewer than 25,000.

“It is extremely impressive, that in America, thousands upon thousands are willing to put their lives on the line for a job that carries hidden hazards no matter how much training you've had,” said Philip Stittleberg, chairman of both the National Volunteer Fire Council and the National Fire Prevention Association.

Country music icon Willie Nelson announced that he will donate the proceeds from his April 28 concert in Austin to support the West Volunteer Fire Department.

“West is just a few miles from my hometown of Abbott,” he said on his web page. “This is my community. These friends and neighbors have always been and are still a part of my life. My heart is praying for the community that we call home.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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