Volunteer fire company decimated in blast
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Risk of government shutdown to worry Congress on return from July Fourth
- Alamo named as World Heritage site by United Nations
- Austin police kill gunman in slaying in hotel lobby
- Years will be needed to gauge efforts to cut Lake Erie algae
- Police: Maine man shoots firework from top of his head, dies
- Arizona prison to relocate more than 350 inmates after disturbance
- Santorum charter flight tab broke $400K
- Woman who tries to sneak on planes arrested twice in 2 days
- Measles carries risk of deadly complication for young
- Notorious New York escapee Sweat returns to prison
- Deteriorating nails blamed for North Carolina deck collapse