• August 30, 2014

West’s first responders named Texans of the Year

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Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 4:30 am

DALLAS — The residents of West, who tried to save their families and neighbors from an earth-rattling, life-changing fertilizer plant explosion were named The Dallas Morning News’ Texans of the Year.

The newspaper recognized all “those who answered the call” in West on the night of April 17. Twelve people who responded to the fire at the West Fertilizer Co., died when it exploded. The newspaper also credited responders who were injured in the blast as well as those who treated the wounded and worked to evacuate nearby residents.

Fifteen people died in total, but with an apartment building, nursing home and schools all next to the plant, many said it was a miracle so many people survived.

“A separation of inches and feet, seconds and minutes, determined who would live or die,” said a Morning News editorial to be published today. “A survivor is no less a hero. No less a Texan of the Year.”

Once a dot along Interstate 35 known for its annual Czech heritage festival and kolache-serving bakeries, West was forever transformed by the blast. As many as 34 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated in a blast that registered as a small earthquake, displaced hundreds of residents, and prompted state and federal reviews of chemical storage.

The first alarm went out at 7:27 p.m. about a fire inside a warehouse at the fertilizer plant, used by generations of farmers from around the area. Volunteer firefighters rushed to try to fight the blaze and would soon call for help from neighboring towns.

As an evacuation of nearby residents got underway, firefighters inside talked about retreating from an ever-growing fire. But, according to volunteer firefighter Robby Payne, firefighters closest to the flames decided to do what they could to keep the flames at bay.

“You’re just trying to do the best you can to buy as much time as you can to get everybody on the same page and make these decisions — and make them fast,” Payne told the newspaper.

The plant exploded 24 minutes after the first alarm, leaving behind a crater 93 feet wide.

Five members of West’s volunteer fire department died: Morris Bridges, Cody Dragoo, brothers Bob and Doug Snokhous, and Joey Pustejovsky.

Also killed were off-duty Dallas firefighter Kenneth “Luckey” Harris, who lived in West; Navarro Mills firefighter Perry Calvin; Bruceville Eddy firefighter Kevin Sanders; and Abbott firefighters Jerry Chapman and Cyrus Reed.

Two others killed were recognized as honorary first responders after their deaths: Jimmy Matus and Buck Uptmor, both of West.

The newspaper lauded West residents whose quick thinking that night saved lives. Dr. George Smith was medical director of West Rest Haven, the nursing home adjacent to the plant, and ordered residents into a common area and away from windows.

Smith also was the town’s EMS director. When the blast blew out local antennas and radio repeaters, Smith used a satellite radio to find a dispatcher in St. Louis to get word out that his town needed help.

“You had to throw the plan away” in a situation of that magnitude, Smith said.

Many of those involved that night still face deep physical and emotional wounds. Payne suffered broken ribs, a ruptured eardrum and a mangled shoulder, among other injuries.

Kenneth Matus, cousin of Jimmy Matus, was left with paralyzed, numb arms from nerve damage, and ringing in his ears that keeps him up at night.

Amanda Atkins, a mother of five who was in EMS training when the blast happened, tried to help with evacuations until her injuries overwhelmed her. She would go through months of depression afterward.

“People tell you to get over it. Move on,” Atkins told the newspaper. “You never get over it.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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