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West firefighters died in the line of duty

April 18, 2013|By Cindy Carcamo, Christine Mai-Duc and Seema Mehta
  • People gather for a candlelight vigil at St. Mary's Catholic Church in West, Texas, in memory of those killed by the fertilizer plant explosion.
People gather for a candlelight vigil at St. Mary's Catholic Church… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty…)

WEST, Texas -- Bryce Reed stuffed the trunk of his vehicle with Gatorade at a Best Western hotel and braced himself for what would come next.

Before heading to the scene of a devastating explosion that killed at least 11 people and wounded more than 160 others, the incident commander with West Emergency Medical Services would have to tell his best friend’s family that he had died after both of them responded to a fertilizer plant fire that preceded the blast.

Reed, 31, said he was ordered just south of the fire to take the role of incident commander while his friend, a fellow first responder whose name has not been released, stayed at the scene of the blaze when the explosion occurred.

“He was my best friend. He got me help through the crisis in my life. He’s my brother,” Reed said.

He looked up, trying to hide his emotions. “I have to go to his family right now," he said.

The Wednesday evening blast at the West Fertilizer Co. will probably go down as one of the deadliest ever for Texas firefighters.

Five West Fire Department firefighters, one Dallas firefighter and four emergency medical responders were killed in the blast, according to the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Assn. of Texas in a statement Thursday afternoon. Another first responder, whose agency was unknown, also died, the statement said. 

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department confirmed that one of its firefighters was among the dead, whom they identified as Capt. Kenneth "Luckey" Harris, a West resident.

Harris was off duty when flames engulfed the West Fertilizer Co.  plant, but he rushed to help the town's volunteer firefighters, Dallas fire officials said. He was killed while fighting the blaze, they said.

Harris, 52, was married and the father of three sons, friends said. He loved to barbecue and go fishing with his sons.

“We just know how hard it’s going to be on those boys,” said Terri Housewright, a cousin of Harris’ wife. “They were very close to their dad.”

Housewright, who lives in Northern California, last saw her cousin Holly and her husband at a family reunion in 2011. She got word Thursday afternoon that Harris had died.

She said Harris had had some success investing in local real estate and had a nose for business.

“He was just very humble, considering everything he’d accomplished in his life,” she said. “He was not one of these boisterous people. You felt totally at ease with him.”

West volunteer firefighter Joseph Pustejovsky also died while battling the blaze, according to his cousin Ronnie Pustejovsky, 62. The cousins are part of a large Pustejovsky clan in the area that dates back generations.

Pustejovsky said Joseph was a young man, probably in his 20s, and that in addition to being a volunteer fireman he was active with the Catholic church and served as the town’s secretary.

“He’s done an outstanding job in that position and everybody likes him,” said Pustejovsky, a retired mechanic.

The elder Pustejovsky was standing in the front yard of his mother’s house watching the fire at the fertilizer facility about 500 yards away when the plant exploded. The force of the blast knocked him to the ground and dislocated his shoulder.

His mother, Bernice, 82, was standing in the doorway. She was showered with glass.

They drove to the emergency room in Waco, about 20 miles away. Both were treated and released, and they returned to find the house destroyed.

“The roof and walls and everything just all caved in,”  Pustejovsky said. “We’re just grateful to God for protecting us.”

ALSO:

West Fertilizer Co. had spotty regulatory history, records show

Many shelters empty as Texas evacuees seek out friends and family

Texas fertilizer plant explosion: A living 'nightmare,' governor says

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