Texas town grieves first responders, others killed in blast
14 found dead after fertilizer plant exploded
WEST, Texas— Buck Uptmor did not have to go to West Fertilizer Co. when the fire started. He was not 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.
Ten of the dead were first responders — including five from the West Volunteer Fire Department and four emergency medics, West Mayor Tommy Muska said.
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 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 Sergeant Jason Reyes said he could not confirm how many first responders had been killed.
Efforts to search devastated buildings in a four-block radius of 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.
In a town of just 2,800 people, everyone here knew someone affected by the explosion.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas 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.
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 fertilizer company.
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.
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.
Marek wondered if she knew anyone who might be at the plant. Uptmor’s wife called.
‘‘She said, ‘Have you heard from Buck?’ ” Marek said.
They spent hours searching for the father of three, who coached baseball, and whose phone was always ringing with people seeking help. Sometimes it was a truck stuck in a ditch or a house that flooded.
Every time, Marek said, Uptmor 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.’’