As the initial stunning shock faded to the realization of the tremendous loss of life in West, Killeen firefighters remained at the sides of the fallen.
The department took a prominent role in the honor guard for the fallen members of the West Volunteer Fire Department, which lost six firefighters in the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion April 18.
Firefighter honor guards remain with a firefighter killed in the line of duty for every minute until they are laid to rest.
It’s one of several roles local firefighters have played in assisting West as it begins to recover from the blast, which killed 15.
Killeen Fire Department Chief J.D. Gardner has returned to the town every day since the explosion.
He is one of several who are helping run West’s fire department while injured firefighters recover and the city begins to recruit new volunteers.
Gardner has spent nearly all his time helping the small town of about 2,800 residents maintain adequate fire coverage while officials from the city and state suss out the details as to how to provide fire services long-term.
“We’re just here helping the chief,” Gardner said. “We’re letting him worry about the funerals of his firefighters. We’re taking the load off the local firefighters and officers.”
West Fire Chief George Norse Jr. has been thrown into the position since the explosion. His father, George Norse Sr., was injured in the explosion and temporarily appointed his son as the chief during his recovery.
Gardner said that the junior Norse has been doing a great job, but is eager for his father to return.
The Harker Heights Fire Department also played a critical role in the response to the explosion that lasted through most of last weekend.
The department houses a regional mobile command center that was widely used when the call for assistance came from McLennan County.
Deputy Chief Glenn Gallenstein said Harker Heights obtained its communications van as a part of grant funds made available after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for large-scale disasters.
One of the conclusions made after the attack was that communications had broken down during the response. The communications van created a mobile operations center while simultaneously bringing centralizing communications.
With fire departments responding to the West explosion coming from a radius of nearly 100 miles to assist, bringing all departments communications on one band was a linchpin to operations.
“Everyone knows the worst failure is communication,” Gallenstein said. “If that goes, everything doesn’t go so well.”
The lives lost also affected members of both departments. Gallenstein said one of his firefighters lost a cousin in the initial blast. A former Killeen firefighter also lost his brother. Both were volunteer firefighters.
But in the face of the worst, Gardner said he has seen the best in West residents.
The outpouring of support has continued, with local businesses volunteering a range of services for firefighters, whether it is free dry cleaning or even a hair cut for a funeral.
“Its pretty amazing how it all came together,” Gardner said. “That community is a strong community. It will recover.”