Memorial for West victims honors men forever bound by bravery

Posted Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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WACO -- They loved to ride motorcycles and man the barbecue grill and farm wide-open Texas land.

They coached Little League and watched NASCAR and doted on babies and grandbabies.

And on a quiet night last week, the 12 men, volunteer firefighters and paramedics, raced to a fire at West Fertilizer Co.

They did not return.

On Thursday, nearly 10,000 people filled Baylor University's Ferrell Center, an arena more accustomed to raucous basketball crowds, for a somber memorial service. Dignitaries included President Barack Obama, Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, along with representatives of firefighting associations.

"To the families and neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say, 'You are not alone. You are not forgotten,'" Obama said.

"We may not all live here in Texas, but we're neighbors, too. We're Americans, too."

At the front of the stage, 12 coffins draped in flags -- 10 American flags and two Texas flags -- lay side by side. A framed poster of each firefighter was on an easel placed next to the coffin. Nine were members of volunteer firefighting associations, one was a professional firefighter who lived in West, and two were posthumously named volunteer first responders.

Three other West residents who lived near the plant died from injuries.

As relatives and friends filed in, some wept, and firefighters helped them to their seats.

"How does one find such love to be willing to lay down your life so that others may live?" asked Cornyn, R-Texas, speaking on behalf of the state's congressional delegation. "This will forever be the legacy of those who ran toward the fire last week."

Perry lamented that each had a personal story and journey that drew to a close too soon.

"These are volunteers. Ordinary individuals blessed with extraordinary courage and a determination to do what they could to save lives," he said. "They're the ones who proudly said 'not on my watch' in the moments immediately following that explosion."

As volunteers, Perry said, these men spent the day working at jobs before answering that fire call.

"The common thread that bound them together was a love of community," he said. "They were ordinary men blessed with extraordinary courage."

Then came a slide show of weddings and fishing trips, of backyard barbecues and ballgames, of kisses from toddlers and hugs from grown children.

U.S. Fire Marshal Ernest Mitchell read the names of the dead, and video eulogies elicited tears and laughs.

Morris Bridges, 41, of West usually barreled out the door for fire calls. But that Wednesday night, he picked up his 2-year-old son and said, "Daddy loves you. I'll be right back."

Perry Calvin, 37, of Frost loved all things outdoors, including farming, riding horses and fishing. He was attending the Fire Academy and Emergency Medical Technician program at Hill College.

Growing up, Jerry Chapman, 26, of Hillsboro could barely sit still. He was the life of every party, even his sister's slumber parties. He recently returned to school to achieve his dream of becoming a helicopter paramedic.

When he traveled, Cody Dragoo, 50, of West left notes around the house for his wife, Patty, to find. They read, "I miss you" and "I love you." He organized the town's annual barbecue cook-off and tractor pull.

Kenny Harris, 52, of West spent more than 31 years as a Dallas firefighter, climbing to the rank of captain. He never missed one of his children's sporting events and loved to fish offshore.

Jimmy Matus, 52, of West grew up spending summers at his aunt and uncle's house, where he developed a deep love of farming. He played Santa Claus for the city's various events.

Famous for his dimpled grin, Joey Pustejovsky, 29, of West married his wife barely a year ago and had seamlessly blended their two families. He was the West city secretary.

Cyrus Reed, 29, grew up fascinated by fire, his brother Bryce said. Reed worked as a volunteer in several small Central Texas departments. And he might have taken exception to the word hero, but friends and family say they will remember him just that way, Bryce said.

Kevin Sanders, 33, leaves behind two things for friends and family to remember him: His restored 1970 Dodge Charger, which he loved, and his 3-month-old son, Reeve, whom he named after Christopher Reeve to honor his love of Superman.

Doug Snokhous, 50, took great pride in his karaoke abilities and his 7-month-old grandson, Hogan. Upon seeing Hogan for the first time, he deadpanned, "Oh, Lord. He's so beautiful. He looks exactly like me."

Robert Snokhous, 48, married his wife a second time because they wanted to share and celebrate their love with a proper wedding. When his children were young, he drove two hours each way on weekends to see them and never once complained.

William "Buck" Uptmor, 45, built his own construction business, but his three children were his life. He coached Little League and helped his daughter train horses and learn to barrel-race.

$100 million in damage

The April 17 explosion left a crater more than 90 feet wide and damaged dozens of buildings, displacing many residents. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates that it caused more than $100 million in damage, and crews are still sifting the rubble for clues to what caused the explosion or indications of whether foul play was involved.

Before the service, hundreds of emergency service vehicles formed a procession that began in West, population 2,700, and wound its way south on Interstate 35 to Waco, past signs that read "God Bless West" and "Bless our fallen heroes."

As they arrived, firetrucks and emergency vehicles from across Texas passed under a giant American flag raised by the ladders of two firetrucks. Emergency responders stood in salute.

Meanwhile, the president and first lady were in the Marine One helicopter, flying south from Dallas after spending the morning among smiles, music and pageantry at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Over West, the helicopter circled the scene of the explosion -- still a harrowing sight.

The Obamas saw what looked like a massive construction site, with cranes and dozens of vehicles dotting a wide swath of brown earth. Scorched earth and piles of burned rubble were visible. Obama could also see the school field that first responders used as a staging ground.

Just one week ago, Obama was in Boston, offering solace to the nation at a memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, another larger-than-life tragedy that compounded the nation's grief the same week as the explosion in West.

After the Waco service, the Obamas were to visit privately with relatives and friends of the firefighters, the White House said.

'The ground shook'

Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, told the crowd in the Baylor arena that the brave men chose to fight knowing that their lives were on the line.

"On that Wednesday, the ground shook," Siarnicki said. "The deafening blow collapsed buildings and broke hearts, but it could not break this community."

A bell tolled for each firefighter, and families stepped forward to receive folded flags and helmets.

Together, the mourners stood to leave, but not before the sorrowful wail of bagpipes filled the arena once more.

Staff writer Nick Dean contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

Twitter: @sarahbfw

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