Texas town grieves for dead first-responders

Firefighters conduct search and rescue of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013.  A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Firefighters conduct search and rescue of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2013. A massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160, officials said overnight. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN & NOMAAN MERCHANT

Associated Press

WEST, Texas (AP) — 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 that they had recovered 14 bodies, confirming for the first time an exact number of people killed. Grieving families quickly started planning burials.

At least three of those who perished in Wednesday’s blast were firefighters, according to family members. The dead included Uptmor and Joey Pustejovsky, the city secretary who doubled as a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department, as well as a captain of the Dallas Fire Department who was off-duty at the time but responded to the fire to help.

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.

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said he could not confirm how many first-responders had been killed. Efforts to search devastated buildings in a four-block radius around the blast site continued 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.”

Edward Smith, a volunteer chaplain for the Dallas Police Department, counseled firefighters at West’s fire station Friday morning. Outside, firefighters from nearby Alvarado washed a truck that was used after the blast to put out the fires started by the explosion.

“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.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn told television station WFAA that search-and-rescue workers had a list of several dozen people who are unaccounted for and were checking that list against those people who are still hospitalized, staying with relatives or evacuated because their homes were destroyed.

“So, hopefully that number will come way down, hopefully to zero,” Cornyn 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 would never forget the “selfless sacrifice of first-responders who died trying to protect all of us.”

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

Federal investigators and the state fire marshal’s office planned to begin 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 investigators would begin at the perimeter of the explosion and work inward toward the destroyed fertilizer company.

Cornyn and Sen. 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 of 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 was always 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, Uptmore 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.”

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Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Christopher Sherman in West, Juan Carlos Llorca in Dallas and video journalists John L. Mone and Raquel Maria Dillon in West contributed to this report.